Here are the first chapters of the six books shortlisted for the Caledonia Novel Award 2017, starting with the winning novel.
Yet Wilderness Grew in My Heart by Cam Terwilliger
Our family estate encompasses one thousand acres of meadow and forest stretching from the west bank of the Hudson River into the foothills—and then the pine-covered peaks—of the Catskill Mountains. My father built the manor house in the time of Queen Anne, two stories of fieldstone with a white portico entrance and six narrow windows slitting its face. A lawn slopes down to the river, the grass mown to the height of an inch by the five listless sheep that serve no other purpose. At the reed-lined shore, a pier juts into the loamy brown of the Hudson, a structure large enough to accommodate the schooners and sloops that glide between Manhattan and Albany all summer long, their white sails fluttering in the wind that courses ceaselessly through our valley. From the back windows of the manor house, one sees the tidy rows of our apple orchard, then a wilderness of maple and beech rising into the mountains beyond—the home of the black bear, the raccoon, and the Indian.
The village of our tenant farmers huddles on the bank of the river a half mile to the north, a community of straw-thatched roofs, a modest church, cattle pastures, and countless fields of rippling rye. Every week a party of trackers appears on the road that passes through the tenants’ hamlet. The men ride through the village without stopping, around the bend in the river, then up the slope of our lawn to the door of the manor, where they descend from their winded mounts, their buckskin jerkins mottled with dirt. They are here to report to my brother, Lord Upton Whitlaw, the current master of Whitlaw Manor and the justice of the peace for our county. They come to speak of the one called William Bell—the man my brother has been hunting for a year.
Bell is a counterfeiter. And a good one. When Upton’s trackers return from the foothills of Kinderhook where they have searched the caves in which the man is supposed to turn out his miraculously accurate notes, they report the sites to be empty. Only once did they return with evidence: a worn-out printing plate used to produce the false notes—a clue left behind so carelessly it seemed intentional, as though to taunt my brother. The plate was copper and dried Frankfurt ink clung to its grooves, the ghostly impression of the worn-out engraving still visible: a note of credit displaying the royal seal of New York—except backward—the white man and the Indian transposing themselves to opposite sides of its windmill crest. There was even the warning below: It is Death to Counterfeit.
This plate—or one exactly like it—sent my brother into a sputtering rage last month when he discovered over one hundred pounds of forged currency had been used at the Whitlaw general store to purchase porcelain, silver, tea, sugar, bolts of silk, pocket watches, brass buttons, Venetian lace, spyglass lenses, and other expensive manufactures so difficult to procure in this part of the world. Upton only discovered the bills were valueless when we tried to redeem them at the colony bank and the head clerk—a man with pale skin, shrunken eyes, and a lisp—told my brother that the bills of those numbers had already been redeemed. How could this be? My brother demanded proof and the bills in question were retrieved from the lockbox so they could be compared, and—yes—the redeemed bills had the exact same numbers as Upton’s: the colony’s 1750 emission. In fact, no one could tell the difference between them—which were the original and which were the counterfeit—until a drop of acid was applied to each. The ink of Upton’s bills did not turn the right color. It faded to cinnamon brown. Not indigo. And so my brother was left with nothing but stacks of paper, each boasting the artful engraving of William Bell, the illusion of twenty pounds each.
William Bell endangers the family estate as palpably as a flood or a blight on the wheat. Yet he remains little more than an apparition to us, a figure of vapor. Village gossip about William Bell—if that is his real name—conflicts to an unsettling degree. One villager claims Bell is bookish, a spectacled man who worships in an Anglican church in Albany, a place that hides him so long as part of his product fills the offering baskets. Another says he is half-Abenaki, his face tattooed like a mask. Another says he lived as a courer de bois, trapping beaver until the business of that collapsed, at which point he turned counterfeiter. I begin to wonder if anyone has even met the man, or if the informers are nothing but a parade of liars planning to cheat Upton of the posted reward.
Or if it is possible that the notes derive from a number of different counterfeiters. Perhaps there is no William Bell at all. He may only be a chimera of my brother’s imagination, something invented to embody this counterfeiting problem, to have a face at which to direct his vitriol, to dream that one day he will put a man on trial and, afterward, everything will return to the way it was before. A handy illusion, I suppose. But no. I’ve seen too many of the bills—the assurance of the design, that signature style that seems slightly more vital, more graceful than the stolid lines of a legal note, the figures of the white man and the Indian rendered as if they might simply step out of their paper tableau. The bills are unmistakably the work of a single hand. And the plates used to print them are the work of a master.
The only thing that is certain about this mysterious engraver is that he provides a necessary distraction from the latest war with France. The war goes poorly in New England and Pennsylvania, their frontiers rolling back every month, every week, every day—a pair of frayed and blood-spattered scrolls. This summer, the war in the colony of New York finally turned for the worse as well, Montcalm’s army and his native allies setting fire to the bastions of Fort William Henry, leaving nothing but a half-ton of charred timber and stone at the foot of Lake George, a mere sixty miles north of Albany. Without the fort to protect us, our minds blossom with fear. Québec, the place that had once seemed so distant, now appears in the dark dreams of our children, in the alarmist headlines of The Mercury and The Herald, in our fretful speculation about what lay just over the horizon. We see our valley in flames. We see Abenaki painting their bodies vermillion and black, taking the hatchet, traveling the forest roads as easily as opening a door. We fear the Indians most because they are desperate. They must take captives to replenish the empty doorways and hearths of their villages, the families now riven by disease, by war, by the sharp taste of rum, their songs calling at times in fury, at times in lamentation.
The worse the war gets, the easier William Bell’s enterprise becomes. The colonial militias pay for everything with paper money, flooding the country with it, Bell’s false notes mixing undetectably with the true ones. More importantly: who has time to fret over fake currency when one’s home is razed? Who but Upton has the desire to enforce the law when the world has so clearly abandoned legality for violence? One day we see a boat of settlers from the north floating down the Hudson, possessions piled hastily on their flat-bottomed bateaux. In the prow, a woman wearing only her shift weeps over a pair of dead girls, their bodies laid side by side on the deck like nothing more than burlap sacks of grain. Above them, she flails at a tangle of flies.
The sight sends Upton’s three daughters into a fit of shrieks and wails. Upton’s wife Constance struggles to quiet them, gathering the girls in her arms to kiss the brunette crowns of their hair. “Tell them it will be all right, Uncle Andrew,” Constance says when I come to the drawing room. Constance eyes me pointedly and nods—and so I do as I’m told. My assurances work in a fashion, the younger girls, Emeline and Sarah, wiping their noses and eyes on their forearms, while the elder one, Jane, screws up the courage to apologize for her outburst, no doubt embarrassed to be seen this way by her Uncle, who she still regards as a kind of peculiar, distinguished guest—even though I’ve been living at Whitlaw Manor for almost two years.
When my brother arrives, we tell him what we saw, sparing no detail. And how does he react? He simply shakes his head and remarks: “A shame. A very great shame.” Then he retires to his office to inspect—once again—the printing plate left behind by William Bell.
When I join him in the office that evening, Upton has moved on to evaluating the plantation account book, the long history of credit that his eldest son—his agent in Manhattan—has accrued from the grain, timber, and iron produced by our tenants, shipped to the city, then sent all over the world. As Upton reads, his eyes narrow to a squint and his lips pucker sourly. His wig sits on a little stand at his right elbow, every hair combed, its stubby tail hanging down. It has been so long since I’ve seen Upton without his wig that he now appears somewhat strange: frail and attenuated, older than his forty-five years. In his close-cropped scalp, a brushing of silver stands against the color of chestnut. The wrinkles at the corners of his eyes have gone from creases to ruts.
When Upton sees that I have come to study—my anatomy manuals tucked under my arm—he snorts.
“I have a novel idea, Andrew,” he says, still regarding the precisely etched numbers in his ledger. “If you ever re-open that medical school you spent all your money on, you could take Mr. Bell for a cadaver. Once we hang him that is. You could dissect the body. Put the spleen and the liver in separate jars for posterity—or whatever it is that you and those esteemed gentlemen do.”
“You know we dissect them for future diagnosis.”
“That’s right,” he says. “The advancement of quackery is rather painstaking.”
Five years older, Upton has always viewed me as a pointless, withered branch of our family tree. In recent years, it has become difficult to argue. In the west of Manhattan, the clapboard sign of the building that I planned to be my academy, the first of its kind in our colony, has been taken down. On the post near its door, a new sign advertises a boarding house for free Africans.
“Would you care to provide me with an anatomical opinion, Andrew?” Upton’s worn blue eyes are relaxed, propped open quizzically, like a cat as it toys with an injured sparrow. “Do you think a criminal like Bell has a heart at all?”
“It would be about the size of yours,” I say. “A bit bigger, perhaps.”
Take Flight by Hannah Foster
My whole world is incessantly moving up, and down. It reeks of vomit and that stale smell you get when everyone sleeps in your lounge room after a party. The men smell the worst, and the little kids. There are nearly two thousand of us on board. It seems like more.
Above me, the sky is blue and featureless. The waves change hourly, sometimes even more often. The water reflects the sky’s colour, but beneath the salty surface, there are just unimaginable depths of grey.
There is a song my mum listened to quite often, called something like Six Months on the Leaky Boat. I think I’ve forgotten its actual name. It scares me how easily I could forget something like that. None of us would last six months on this boat, though it is technically a ship, not a boat.
My name is Blythe. I get called Ithy. Like itchy, but with a lisp. I can say that, because my sister used to have one, a little one, before mum sent her to a speech therapist. Blythe literally means happy and without worries. No worries mate. It has been months since I heard that phrase. I don’t know if I will ever hear it again. What I do know is that here, in the vast blue, I am nobody; just a cork bobbing in the ocean. There is water in the engine room, so we are going nowhere. We are waiting.
I’m not good at waiting, but I will. I can. I knew someone on this ship that couldn’t wait. She cut her arms and jumped into the water. We have all been warned about sharks. I haven’t seen any, but I hope there are some; I mean I hope it was quick. I told my little sister, Lallie, that she’d died in the night and that they’d had to throw the body overboard since we couldn’t bury her. I think she believed me. I wanted to believe me.
Karen was wearing a big orange T-shirt and beige trousers. She reminded me of a character in the show Orange is the New Black, an inmate, wearing that colour. Mum and I watched reruns of it last summer. It’s like fifteen years old, but it is still pretty good. I never admitted that to mum though, because then it was counted as her choice of show, and I was owed a selection.
Karen just stood in the doorway of our lounge room and waved at Lallie and me, using only her hand, not her arm. Lallie was half asleep on the couch and I was doing her hair. It looked pretty good, from up-side-down anyway. Mum poked her head around behind Karen and introduced us properly. Karen was one of mum’s work colleagues. Mum doesn’t really have friends, just colleagues.
She was staying with us while mum went to a conference. I refused to use the word babysitting, since I was seventeen. I waved back at them. Lallie pretended to be properly asleep. From the way she was dressed, and her hair, I would have guessed Karen had always been single and lived with elderly cats, but mum had told us she was in the process of getting a divorce from a guy called Ben. It didn’t matter. She was staying, for just over a week, including the last couple of days of my final ever school summer holidays. Next summer I was planning on going to Bali on schoolies with Alex and Sorrel. I hadn’t told mum about Bali yet; I was going to need some serious leverage and excellent marks at school to convince her.
Mum pointed Karen towards the kitchen. Parsnip was asleep, properly asleep, on the floor next to the couch. His big head was resting on one of my shoes. He’s a yellow Labrador and his real name is actually Bartholomew Christos. But that’s a stupid name for a dog and Lallie couldn’t say it when she was little, so somehow Bartholomew morphed into Parsnip. He is actually Lallie’s dog, but we all looked after him. He spent most of his time at home sleeping, probably dreaming of food.
‘Why’s Lal asleep?’ mum asked from the doorway.
I shrugged. I saw a tiny smile twitch across Lallie’s face.
‘She’s just tired,’ I offered, biting my bottom lip.
‘I hope she hasn’t got glandular.’
‘What? The boy down the street, number fifteen, their son Dylan has glandular and apparently he can hardly get out of bed…’
‘She can hear you.’
‘Ithy, she’s asleep.’
‘Lallie doesn’t have glandular.’
‘Did you wake her up last night when you got home?’
‘That was the last one, you know, school starts in three days.’
I’d been to a party the night before. A guy that Sorrel knows called Rio hosted it. His parents were cool enough to clear out of their house for the night. His place was in Kew and it was huge, with a pool, digital emersion room and five or six bedrooms, even though he’s an only child. I drank a bit more than I normally would at a party; it was a big night. Rio and some other guy ended up stepping on glass in the pool. Rio put up pictures this morning of his bandaged foot and their pool totally drained. His parents were annoyed because they were not going to be able to fill it again until winter, because of the water restrictions.
It seemed crazy, having water restrictions, when all it ever felt like was that we had too much water. Mum cried when Venice finally went under last year. I don’t know why that set her off, out of everything. Other places have already gone, like Kiribati and some other island in the Pacific. And whole big chunks of India, anywhere really low-lying, they’ve gone. The Dutch have some awesome system of walls and pumps to keep the water back in Holland, but there wasn’t the money to cover India that way.
We watched the report on Venice on the news together. We didn’t normally watch the news like that, but there was a special retrospective on Venice and mum wanted to watch it. It wasn’t even that bad. They’d moved all the art out a year before and the people a few months after that. It was St Mark’s Square awash, bits of crap bobbing all over it, that got mum. She just burst into tears when they showed that. I think it’s because she’d been there in 2005, when she was about twenty. She took a year off between first and second year University to travel and to learn French and Italian. Obviously it rubbed off on her, because she became an art historian. The conference she was going to was in San Francisco, on Impressionist styles from across the world, or something like that.
I can’t really imagine my mum aged twenty. I’ve seen footage and tonnes of photos, I know what she looked like, but I just can’t really imagine how she’d be to hang out with, what I’d think of her, if I met her then. She was actually really pretty, even though her clothes were ridiculous.
When mum started to cry during the Venice coverage, Lallie snuggled up to her, pushing herself under mum’s left arm, so that her head rested on mum’s chest. Lallie didn’t say anything, but mum stopped crying and just sniffed through the rest of the report. Lallie is not that far off being a teenager. Sometimes I feel like she’s still four years old. And then sometimes, she’s quiet and super wise, and I think she’s at least ninety.
Mum and Karen talked in the kitchen for a while and then Mum took Karen upstairs to the spare room, which was actually mum’s study. Lallie miraculously woke up.
‘Can you please tell mum I don’t have glandular?’ was the first thing she said.
Then she touched her hair.
‘What have you done?’
‘It’s cute, it’s like a top knot with braids feeding into it.’
‘Can you tell mum?’
‘I did. I tried. She just worries.’
‘Because you never say much, it’s hard to know what you’re thinking.’
Mum made a really nice dinner to welcome Karen, or maybe to thank her for agreeing to watch Lallie and me for a week. She even made dessert, cherry clafoutis. Normally we get our meals delivered, but mum could cook pretty well, when she had the time. Karen had seconds of dessert and then went to bed almost straight afterwards. Mum and I stayed up together watching the POD. Lallie went to her room to play a VR game with my headset since hers had broken. Mum and I didn’t talk much; we just watched the show. She made us both a cup of tea. I wish now that we’d talked about something more memorable that night, before she flew out to San Fran.
Karen watched the news every night, like three different editions of it. But I just watched stuff on my T device in my room and Lallie listened to music and Karen seemed fine with that. She was an odd kind of person. She mostly ate toast and tubs of something called whey ice cream, which is supposed to be good for you, but didn’t look like it was, since Karen was pretty overweight. The only times I saw her leave the house were to go to work or to buy the whey ice cream. I offered to order it for her online but she said she wanted to go out because she didn’t want her ex-husband being able to track what she bought online. That didn’t make sense at all, but I didn’t argue. Mum gave us access to her payment chips before she left, so I could have bought it for her.
Karen wasn’t exactly pretty but she was smart and had a good job. She was boring, but then most people her age are like that. And apart from the ice cream and not understanding how to mask her internet activities, she was totally normal. Yet she ended up with some complete psycho, who stalked her spending online after they divorced.
Of my two best friends, Alex is way more into her running than guys, even though guys go crazy for her, but Sorrel is a Karen, only twenty-five years younger. She has the worst taste in guys – not even attractive morons, just morons. The latest one was called Avril, which I think is a girl’s name. Sorrel told me she’d started sleeping with him. She’d told me at the party at Rio’s the night before Karen arrived. She was pretty drunk though, so I didn’t know whether or not to believe her. Sorrel lost her virginity to a creepy guy at her dad’s work barbeque when she was fifteen. Alex and I are both still on our Vs. Sorrel kept going on about Avril at Rio’s party. He had a piercing on his lower lip that got infected all the time. I couldn’t even look at it.
The night before school started again Lallie knocked on my door when I was half way through a reality show where they make people who are afraid of particular animals live with that animal for a week. It’s quite stupid, I don’t know why I watched it.
‘Lallie, what?’ I asked, not wanting to take my eyes off the paused screen.
Lallie was standing in the doorway, tracing the bottom of the doorframe with her left toe. Mum says Lallie looks like a waif from the Les Miserables musical. I think she’s really beautiful. There was a thing called ‘heroin chic’ in the 1990s and she’s totally got that pale monochrome look going on. She has mum’s high cheekbones. I got my dad’s, apparently. Mum has no photos of him though, so I don’t know. Lallie is technically my half sister and mum is technically on the list with Karen and Sorrel for making bad decisions with guys.
‘What?’ I repeated, turning to look at her properly this time.
‘Karen’s crying, in the kitchen. I can hear her.’
Crying makes Lallie uncomfortable. She even hates it when actors fake-cry.
‘Do you know why?’
Lallie shrugged and shook her head.
‘Do you want to come in?’ I said, scrunching up my legs so there was a good clear space for her on the bed.
Lallie sidled over to the bed and sat down, legs crossed. She hugged Rufus, my bear, to her chest. I put Rufus away when friends came over, even Sorrel and Alex. He’s got a tatty red ribbon tied around his neck. Mum put the ribbon on him a couple of years ago and propped him up on a chair with a single red rose in his paws, for Valentine’s Day. It was nice, but also kind of sad, since she knew it was the only one I’d get and she didn’t get any at all.
‘What were you doing downstairs anyway?’
Lallie shrugged again and squeezed Rufus’ stomach.
‘Watching the news.’
‘Why didn’t you watch in your room?’
‘I wanted to watch on the big screen.’
I knew that was a lie.
‘The sound’s better downstairs. I don’t know, don’t ask…’
‘Did Karen watch the news? Was it something on the news?’
‘No, she was just cleaning up the kitchen and I heard her crying in the ad break, when I muted the sound.’
‘Do you think I should go down there?’ I asked, hoping that Lallie would say no.
‘I miss mum,’ she said.
Mum had only been gone a couple of days. Lallie never said stuff like that.
‘I don’t know, there’s just, so much bad stuff on the news.’
‘You shouldn’t watch it.’
‘But it’s true.’
‘There’s people drowning in Europe.’
I reached out and gave her a hug, wrapping my arms around her and nestling my head into the crook of her shoulder for a moment. To be honest, the hug was really more for me than for her benefit.
‘Nothing bad is going to happen. Europe has flooded before.’
Lallie frowned and kept looking at me. I reached out and patted Rufus’ head as he sat in Lallie’s arms. I sighed.
‘I’ll go downstairs and ask Karen if she’d like help stacking the dishes.’
I never did find out what Karen was crying about. I’m guessing it was Ben. Anyway, as mum would say in one of her lectures or papers, it was entirely inconsequential in the scheme of things. Lallie was right to be worried. Not about Karen, but about the other stuff, the weather and the politicians and the scary things on the news.
The next day was Monday, and I was back at school. We’d started prepping for our final year subjects with teachers at the end of last year, but I still felt a bit anxious about the first day back.
At 12:45pm, right in the middle of our lunch break, the bell rang. It was definitely not time to go back to class. I knew the teachers would still be mooching in the staff room and sucking on surreptitious cigarettes in their cars. Only the older ones smoked. You could smell it beneath the air freshener and deodorant they sprayed around afterwards.
Human Geography by Vicky Grut
Sofía came up from the kitchen just as the landline began to ring in the sitting room. She knew exactly what it was. She had been tracking the pattern all summer. Calls usually came over the weekend when her mother Lola was there to snatch up the phone. Sometimes Lola would talk for a while in Spanish. Sometimes she’d say: ‘I’ll call you later’. Once or twice Sofía had seen her simply lift the receiver and drop it back down. Today Lola was home but Sofía could hear that she was busy on another call, upstairs in her study.
On and on the landline rang. Sofía sprinted across the hall and into the big room. She lifted the receiver. ‘Hullo?’
There was a brief hesitation as if the caller was surprised – as if they had forgotten that an answer was part of the deal. The voice, when it came, was not at all what Sofía had been expecting. It was female, timid, whisperingly old.
‘¿Por qué non me llamas?’ Why do you never call me?
‘¿Perdon?’ Sofía switched languages automatically.
‘I have been waiting,’ the woman said, still in Spanish, ‘all week, I have been waiting.’
‘For you,’ said the voice.
Then her mother was there, snatching the receiver away from Sofía, marching off towards the window, speaking coldly to the caller. ‘¿Qué quieres? I thought I told you not to use this number. You have my mobile if there’s an emergency – Si, claro … Look. I’m in the middle of work at the moment … Hmmm. I’ll call you tomorrow … Te prometo. I promise … Call Nuria if you’re feeling lonely right now. Yes, yes, tomorrow … mañana.’
Lola replaced the handset in its cradle and turned back to the window. She stood looking out at the back garden, running one hand through her jaw-length black hair.
‘Who was that?’
Lola looked startled, as if she’d forgotten about Sofía. ‘Oh, nobody.’
Sofía laughed. ‘Come on Mum, that wasn’t nobody!’
A short silence.
‘If you must know, she’s an elderly friend of the family.’
Lola gave a small, terse nod. ‘She’s getting a bit senile. She has lots of other people she could call but suddenly now she only wants to talk to me. She’s been ringing all day. I had to turn off my mobile earlier. I have a deadline. I need to concentrate.’
‘So why does she want to talk to you? Doesn’t she have her own family?’
Lola cast a sharp glance at Sofía, bristling with unsaid things. ‘Shouldn’t you be doing some work, Sofía?’
‘It’s Saturday, Mum.’
Her mother raised an eyebrow and returned to her office without replying. Lola was always working.
Sofía went up to her bedroom, got out her laptop, opened her sister’s Facebook page and wrote: ‘Call me!’ This was something she wanted to share. In the dying weeks of the summer, Sofía had spent several evenings trying to draw Barbara into the mystery of these calls. Was Lola being black-mailed? Was she having an affair? Barbara had remained resolutely uninterested. But now, surely, she would admit that there was something going on.
Sofía scrolled down the page looking at Barbara’s pictures. Barbara was spending a year in California, doing postgraduate work. She’d barely landed and already her page was full of parties, beach walks, coffee stops and juice bar outings with confident-looking girls. Sometimes Sofía wondered whether she and Barbara really were sisters. She told herself that it was probably because by the time it came for her to be born, Lola’s eggs weren’t as good any more. It was a biological fact that men kept making more and more seed until they toppled into the grave, but a woman was born with just the one set and they had to last for the whole of her life. Lola had been twenty-two, barely out of university, when she had Barbara. She hadn’t begun to be stressed and successful yet. By the time Sofía came along four years later, Lola was working fulltime and her eggs would have been more bashed about. Seven years later when she had the twins they were probably in an even worse condition (because look at the results).
According to Barbara, when she and Lola had their talk about boys and condoms etcetera, Lola had admitted she hadn’t meant to get pregnant so young. (‘I was an accident,’ Barbara said. How could she stand to hear that?). Dad, on the other hand, had been massively keen to get married, and because Lola was brought up a Catholic, even though she no longer believed, she’d said yes; she didn’t want to end a life. ‘You were planned,’ Barbara told her. ‘They waited till Dad had passed all his exams. The twins were another slip-up.’ It made her think, Barbara said, that if Lola hadn’t fallen pregnant so young she might have been a bit more ambitious – though Dad was lovely, of course.
Sofía had been furious with Barbara for saying all this and also for not feeling more upset. It made her angry even thinking about it now. But her mother and her sister were a bit alike in that way: it took a lot to knock them sideways.
Snap. She closed the lid on Barbara’s world.
Wednesday morning. Sofía sat listening to Dennis, the documentary photography lecturer, as he talked them through his slides. The whole business of being at university still felt exciting, a universe away from the tidy girls’ school she’d come from. There were so many different kinds of people: some were confident, asking loud questions in the seminars, stating opinions, arguing, making sure they were noticed; others yawned and mumbled, took naps, checked their phones, sometimes didn’t bother coming back after the coffee break. Sofía wasn’t quite sure where to place herself yet. She had already fallen in and out of several groups. For the moment she tagged along with Liz, a serious girl with dyed blue hair, and a boy called Tim, both of whom travelled in by train every day from Kent.
Up at the front of the room, Dennis was talking about scope and scale, patience, planning. Two weeks ago, in the very first class, he had made them sit in silence while he plunged the room into darkness. It took a while for the shrieks and giggling to stop. Then the nothingness took over, black seeping into them, under their skin. It felt almost like falling though Sofía knew there was no movement. When he switched the lights on again Dennis said that now they must imagine that they were starting from scratch, that all their old ideas of good and bad, beautiful and ugly, useful, tasteful or not, had been left behind in that darkness. ‘In this class we are going to learn to open our eyes and our minds, and we are going to learn how to see,’ he said. ‘Not just look, but really SEE.’
Until that moment Sofía had been uncertain about the course. She had chosen to study photography in a blind rage against her parents who had tried to push for something more academic: How about Economics, Sofía? Statistics? Psychology? Industrial Design? Criminology? Geography, like Barbara? No, no, NO! But when Dennis turned on the lights again and said what he’d said, Sofía felt a shiver of excitement and she knew that this was the right thing to be doing. This was what she was looking for.
‘And here we have a picture taken in Spain in 1936,’ Denis was saying. ‘It’s by one of the Magnum photographers, Robert Capa. It’s called Militiaman Falling.’
Up on the screen was a barren landscape in black and white. Three quarters of the image was open sky; in the left-hand quadrant, a man caught in the moment of his death, his body tilting backwards, rifle held high, head jerking away in the other direction. He seemed to be both leaping and crumpling, like a piece of cloth flung up and then almost, almost beginning to fold. At first glance the man’s body seemed to be untouched but if you studied the image more closely you could see what looked like a tuft of hair standing up from his head. Dennis pointed it out. This was where the bullet was beginning to erupt from his skull.
The picture appeared on the cover of Life magazine, Dennis said. It became iconic, standing in for the quarter of a million – maybe more – who’d lost their lives in that war in Spain. After a while, though, some began to say that the picture was too good to be true. How was it possible that Capa just happened to be there to catch this split second of horror and grace in a time of light meters and cumbersome equipment? And wasn’t Robert Capa – or Endre Friedmann as he was born – a bit of a showman? Another photographer claimed that Capa had confessed to staging some of his images. Others sprang up to defend him. Someone tracked the setting to a village that Capa was known to have visited in 1936. They showed the picture to a local man who identified it as his brother, shot and killed on that day. Most compelling of all, said Dennis, a researcher had shown the picture to a forensic expert who said that if the picture had been faked, the man would instinctively have extended his free hand to break his fall.
‘See here,’ Dennis said. He pointed to the man’s right hand, fingers curling inwards towards the palm. ‘The hand is soft. It shows that in the moment when the image was taken, this man was already dead.’
Sofía stared up at the screen. Such a tiny thing and yet it was the difference between believing and not. She stowed the thought in her head for later. Proof.
When she got home she went straight downstairs to the kitchen and slumped at the table where Alenka sat chopping vegetables. They didn’t really need an au pair now that the twins were at secondary school, but Alenka had been with them for almost four years. No one could imagine life without her any more. Sofía watched her ripping the hair from three sticks of celery, then beginning to slice. From overhead in the sitting room came the muffled sounds of the twins playing Mortal Combat. (‘You big fat cheat, Ollie!’ and ‘OW! You killed me!! What did you do that for?’)
‘What are we having for supper, Alenka?’
‘Want some help?’
‘You only make a mess.’
Sofía didn’t protest.
‘Did you know, Alenka, that there was a civil war in Spain? I’ve just been in the college library, reading about it.’
Alenka looked surprised and annoyed. She hated to admit not knowing anything. She went back to her chopping. ‘Just like in my country,’ she said.
‘Hmmm,’ said Sofía. ‘It happened before World War Two. It was really bad.’
‘All wars are really bad.’
Alenka was from Kosovo. She’d been a kid when the war in her country started and she’d seen and heard terrible things. When she was older there was peace but no work so she managed to get over the border and then walked and hitched and worked her way from one country to the next until she came to England on a fake Czech Republic passport. All this, she said, Sofía must never tell anyone else. Some of it Sofía would rather not have known about in the first place, but talking was like that: if you shared things that made you weak and afraid then the other person shared back and you made a bond out of the weaknesses, and it became a bridge that you could walk back and forth on without falling. With Alenka, though, the bridge could go up and down. You never knew what kind of condition you’d find it in. You had to test it out.
‘At the end of this war, the fascists won. So then they had a dictatorship.’
Another sharp, surprised glance from Alenka.
‘Nearly forty years, Akenka. Right up until 1975. A fascist dictatorship and the death penalty and everything. In Spain. They’d make people sit against a post and then they’d put this thing called a garrotte around their necks and tighten it until the person was strangled. Or sometimes it shoved a spike into the spine and broke their necks. Or they just shot you.’
Alenka shook her head, though the knife in her hands never stopped: onions now, chop chop. ‘People are terrible.’ She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, probably because of the onions.
Sofía fiddled with the rope of discarded celery hair. ‘I wonder why Mum never talks about all this. Do you think she even knows?’
‘This is the country where she was born, where her parents came from. Of course she knows.’
‘So why hasn’t she told us about it?’
Alenka shrugged. ‘Why should she? It’s long ago. Finished. In the past.’
Sofía tied the celery hair into a knot and dropped it; picked it up again, dropped it. ‘That’s not what you say when you talk about the war in your country, though, is it. You’re always saying that it’s important to keep on talking about the terrible things that were done so that it doesn’t happen again. That’s what people say about the Holocaust, isn’t it?’
Alenka didn’t answer. She just wiped her eyes again and shrugged.
‘I was thinking, though – maybe this means that Mum would understand why you had to leave Kosovo?’
Alenka’s head whipped up. ‘You must never, ever tell anyone about the things I have told you. Do you hear, me?’ She shook the little knife. ‘Never.’
‘But don’t you think…?’
‘People get somewhere safe and then they want to slam the door on everyone behind them. They say: oh we are different, but those other dirty pigs just want to come and take our jobs. No, no, no.’
‘You know what I’m saying,’ Alenka said firmly. ‘Now I must hurry up. No more talking. You are making me late.’
Sea Change by Sylvia Hehir
Alex backed away from the spitting flames and watched Chuck wrench another rotten timber from the derelict cottage doorway, bringing with it an avalanche of plaster and brickwork.
‘Give us a hand,’ Chuck called.
Alex sprinted the short distance to the Keeper’s Cottage, his bare feet kicking up soft sand as he went, but Daniel stayed where he was, balancing on a floorboard they’d ripped from the cottage kitchen, its nails still poking through.
It had taken the three of them all afternoon. Positioning boulders in a circle on the sand for the fire pit, scouring the oak woodlands behind the cottage to amass a mound of wood, ransacking the innards of the cottage itself. They’d had no fear of being disturbed; the only visitors to this part of the peninsula were the deer—until Chuck had set up camp, that is.
With a breeze from the sea, the lads’ shorts flapped against their legs. Daniel wore his AC/DC t-shirt, but the other two were bare-chested. The evening was warm, even without the heat from the fire.
Chuck took a large beam in both hands and hurled it into the flames, causing an explosion of sparks to spume into the evening sky. Daniel stepped off the floorboard and circled the fire, flipping back any fragments of wood that had fallen off. The cracked windowpanes of the Keeper’s Cottage blinked back the fiery glare.
When Chuck considered the time was right he used a long stick to rake the embers, then signalled to Alex to help him position the floorboard, carefully placing each end on granite blocks so that it was suspended a few centimetres above the flattened bed of flickering coals.
Chuck tugged at the waist-cord of his tribal-patterned shorts and let them pool at his feet. Naked now, he gave a bow to Alex and a curtsy to Daniel.
Turning to the fire, he slid his left foot onto the floorboard then, taking his time, tiptoed along. As he approached the centre of the ring of fire he bounced lightly on his toes but the wood remained solid beneath him, despite the smoke pluming off its underside.
He pirouetted to face the two friends. Carefully placing one foot behind the other, he walked backwards, smiling widely as he went, then stopped a few centimetres short of the end of the plank. He executed a perfect back flip and landed on the mat of bracken they’d positioned earlier. He raised his arms in the air like the athlete he was, leg muscles taut, skin gleaming with sweat.
The performance over, he strutted around the fire towards Daniel and Alex, his hand held out, seeking the approbation he knew he deserved.
Chuck pulled his shorts on quickly, gave Alex a playful kick up the bum with his bare foot and said, ‘Your turn.’
Poised near the cliff edge, Alex could see his wooden boat pitching about on the stormy waters below, straining at its painter.
‘I’ll only be a few minutes,’ he called to Daniel who was limping along the clifftop path behind him.
‘We’ll be late!’ Daniel yelled against the wind.
Alex glanced again at the crashing waves. Last night’s storm had made a fitting end to the holidays. He really needed to haul his boat back to the safety of the sheltered beach before she suffered any damage. Decision made, he grabbed a handful of heather and scrambled over the cliff edge. The worn soles of his trainers skidding on the rain-drenched rocky slope as he skewed his way down to the cove.
His cheap trainers were just as useless on the piles of seaweed dumped at the foot of the cliffs by the storm. With his eyes fixed on his boat, he’d only taken a few stumbling steps when he lurched over a stinking heap and fell face down. Swearing loudly, he pulled himself onto his knees and winced with pain as he wiped blood from a wound where his forehead had hit a rock. On his feet now, Alex swore again as he aimed a kick at the mound he’d tripped over. But he stopped mid-kick—seized by the sight of two pale fingers poking out from the seaweed.
There was no mistaking what lay amid the tangled bladderwrack and kelp.
Alex stared at the body, at the jean-clad legs, stiff in their unnatural position, only turning away when he heard Daniel’s voice tearing through the wind like the demanding call of a fledgling seagull: ‘Hurry up.’
Alex could see him peering over the cliff edge, his hands shielding his eyes from the morning sun. Daniel freaked at being late for anything. The first day back at school after the summer holiday was a big deal for him.
‘I’m coming,’ Alex yelled back. ‘You wait there.’
But Alex couldn’t leave. Living on a croft, Alex was no stranger to putrid finds. Yet this was no unfortunate beast. This was—had been—a person. A teenager, judging by the clothes. He bent forward and tugged at a frond of leathery kelp that lay across the head. The kelp slithered off and Alex had barely enough time to step away when he saw the mangled flesh where the face should have been. He retched out a stream of bitter-tasting liquid.
Now he’d seen enough.
Pebbles skittered down the cliff face. Daniel, beyond anxious, was navigating the slope.
‘Stay where you are,’ Alex yelled.
He patted his phone in his pocket. No signal down here. Phoning the police would have to wait until he got closer to the village.
‘What is it?’
‘Just stay there.’ There was no need for Daniel to witness this.
Alex gave a last scan up and down the body, and froze, his attention caught by a patch of white on the navy jumper the body was wearing. Blocking his nostrils with his hand, he squatted to get a better look. A small white anchor was embroidered on the cuff.
Alex knew there was only one jumper in the world like that—knew because Aunty Joan had knitted it for him last Christmas. It was the jumper Alex had joked he’d never be seen dead in. The one he’d lent to Chuck after a late night swim.
What the …? Alex’s gut clenched tight. He kicked out again at the pile of stinking seaweed. After all that had gone on—it couldn’t end like this.
Alex turned and staggered towards the cliff. ‘I said … stay there,’ he shouted to Daniel, unable to keep the panic out of his voice.
‘We’ll be late,’ Daniel called from his perch.
‘You go back.’ Alex began a double-quick ascent of the rocks, knowing through familiarity the best hand and footholds.
‘I think I’m stuck,’ Daniel said, shuffling his feet. The loosened soil hit Alex in the face. ‘It’s quarter to nine. And my leg…’
‘I know. I know. I’m behind you now.’ Alex pulled himself to within an arm’s length of Daniel. ‘Just go back.’
They climbed to the sound of Daniel’s grunts until they reached the grasses on the open clifftop, both of them red in the face.
Daniel stooped over, his hands gripping his thighs. ‘What is it? What did you find down there?’
‘Cut the crap. You look dreadful. What happened to your face?’
Alex took a deep breath, placed the tips of his fingers against the lump that was growing on his forehead.
‘For God’s sake, Alex. What’s happened?’
Alex shrugged his shoulders. Shook his head. What words could he use? There were no words. But Daniel started to limp towards the cliff edge.
‘No. Don’t!’ Alex yelled.
‘What is it? Tell me.’
‘… In the seaweed …’
‘What? Another sick game arranged by Chuck?’ Daniel sneered and brushed his hair off his face.
‘You … You don’t know what you’re saying.’
Daniel’s face turned an angry red. ‘Well why don’t you just tell me then!’
All right … If Daniel reckoned he wanted to know: ‘It is Chuck. In the seaweed.’
‘What do you mean “In the seaweed”?’ A look of horror fixed on Daniel’s face as realisation struck him. ‘Chuck’s body, do you mean?’
Alex gave a brief nod.
‘You mean … Chuck’s dead?’
Yes, Chuck was dead. Chuck, who had more life in his little finger nail than all the kids in school put together.
The boys stared at each other as the wind howled around them.
Daniel shivered in his white school shirt. ‘What the …? How?’
Alex gave a shrug.
‘Was it a fire?’
Alex closed his eyes; saw again the body, the clothes, the ragged flesh. Whatever had happened, Chuck hadn’t got caught in any fire. ‘No. Not that,’ he said.
It was Daniel’s voice that shook with panic now. ‘Do you reckon he was found?’
Had Chuck been found? Had the blokes that Chuck had obviously been so scared of found his hiding place?
‘I don’t know, do I? All I know is that he’s down there. Or at least what’s left of him.’ Alex turned his back to the sea. ‘I’ve never seen … never seen anyone … you know?’
Daniel hunched his shoulders, wrapped his arms around his chest. ‘Chuck’s dead.’
Alex took a step closer to Daniel whose shivering had now turned into full-blown quaking. ‘It’s all right.’
‘Yeah.’ Daniel slipped his backpack off his shoulder. ‘I’ll call the police.’ He stuck a shaking hand into his bag.
‘No signal here,’ Alex said.
‘But emergency numbers—’
‘No. Really … Wait.’
Daniel had his phone in his hand. ‘What for?’
Alex grabbed both of Daniel’s arms. ‘Just let me think, will you? … Nobody’s seen us here,’ Alex said, as if talking to himself. ‘The tide’s almost at its lowest point. I’ll think of something.’ He puffed out his cheeks before releasing another deep breath. ‘We need to get to school.’
‘Fucksake, Alex. We can’t just leave him there. We’ve got to do—’
‘We’ve got to do what? What’re you saying?’
Daniel shook Alex’s hands off. His voice regained a degree of composure. ‘We have to tell—’
‘Look at it like this. He’s not going anywhere until the next high tide, at the earliest.’ Alex paused and fixed his eyes on Daniel’s. ‘It doesn’t have to be us.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘There’s no need for us to freak out … Draw attention to ourselves. Somebody else will find him soon enough … probably.’
‘It doesn’t have to be us?’ Daniel didn’t sound convinced.
‘It’ll be better all round if we keep out of it. Agreed?’
‘How can we?’
‘Look, we’ve done nothing wrong.’
Daniel lifted his eyebrows.
‘Well, you’ve done nothing wrong.’ Alex said. ‘Chuck’s not spoken to anybody else since he came here. No one knows anything about him.’
‘You’re not seriously suggesting we ignore the fact that you’ve just found …?’ Daniel jabbed his finger towards the cove, clearly exasperated now.
Alex stepped towards the clifftop. Above him, a pair of terns wheeled chaotically—white, black, white against the bleached blue sky. ‘You know I can’t let my mum find out anything. We’ve got to keep quiet. Can I trust you to do that?’
‘But we can’t—’
‘We can. Give me until the end of the day.’
‘That’s too long. What if—’
‘I’ll sort it. Really.’
Daniel glanced at his watch. ‘All right,’ he said, not bothering to hide his reluctance as he set off down the path, leaning into the wind.
‘And they probably won’t even give you your timetable, dressed like that,’ Daniel pointed out as they neared the school gates.
Alex shrugged. Unlike Daniel, who had new clothes bought for him at the start of every new school year, Alex owned none of the items of the dress code the Depute demanded they adhere to, even in their fifth year. School uniform was lower down the priority list than chicken feed at the croft.
‘See you in English then? And … you won’t do anything stupid?’
Alex shrugged again, preoccupied by his thoughts. ‘Aye. I’ll see you …’
They’d been friends since primary school but English was the only subject they’d be in together now that Daniel was starting his Highers. It was the one school subject Alex found easy. The rest of the time he’d be doing ‘Skills for Work’ subjects. Some joke! He regularly told anybody who would listen that being a fisherman was the only work he wanted to do. And he was already better skilled at that than any of the so-called tutors.
He hadn’t a clue when the English class was but Alex already knew he wouldn’t be in any of his classes that day, and it had nothing to do with his lack of uniform.
Alex waited until Daniel had merged with the other swotty fifth-years entering the science wing, then leaned against the redbrick wall near the smokers getting their last fix before morning break. He knew what he had to do.
At the first bell, the smokers strolled off towards the main entrance, a couple of them nodding to him as they passed by. Then when the late bell rang and there were no more stragglers to be seen, Alex skirted along the building to retrace his steps to the clifftop, already planning how to fix things. Trust Chuck to choose that spot to turn up dead. The very place where they’d first met. The few weeks since that day had turned in to a living nightmare. Alex would make sure that it all ended—here and now.
As he strode across the headland, he looked out to sea to check he wouldn’t be spotted from any nearby crafts. The fishing boats that had left the harbour at dawn were now just dots in the distance. He could make out the CalMac ferry edging along the horizon, heading to the Outer Isles. All safe enough. The cove was difficult to get to and the morning dog-walkers preferred the long beach. He could do it.
He knew what he needed: lengths of rope, pieces of netting, at least two large rocks. He almost gave up on the plan at the thought of tying the rope around the stinking body. He had to get a grip, prepare himself for what had to be done. He thought through how he would have to drag the body into the sea, tying it to the towrope then rowing out past the headland. And how he would need to tie the rocks, wrapped in the netting, to the body’s turgid limbs before tipping the rocks overboard. He vowed he would stay watching until the skull with its gaping eye sockets and ragged flesh sank beneath the waves. That would be the last he’d see of Chuck, his pale hand giving a final salute, taking with him the white anchor on the jumper. Well, Alex wouldn’t be waving back.
Alex stopped. The anchor on the cuff! With the realisation that he didn’t have to dispose of the body, he very nearly laughed out loud. All he needed to do was cut the anchor off the jumper. It was just another navy jumper then. Nobody would be able to link it back to him. Nobody else knew what had gone on during the summer.
Alex balanced on the cliff edge. The tide, now at its lowest point, had exposed the sandy reaches that linked his cove to the long beach. Out at the tide line, a woman wearing black wellies stood watching the waves crash in. It was Mrs MacKinnon. And Scamp, her frisky spaniel, was chasing up the beach towards the piles of seaweed.
Run-Off Season by Adrian Markle
Cam Adler pulled for the third time on the still locked door of Lamplight Cleaners. He pressed against the glass and cupped his hands to either side of his face to keep the glare out, forming a parenthesis around himself. It was still dark inside the shop. He spun around and kicked the sidewalk with his new dress shoes, skittering pebbles out onto the street.
His phone buzzed. It wasn’t a number he recognized. An 805 area code, all the way down in California. He pressed the button to ignore the call and re-focused on being angry at the shop. No one ever called for anything good. Especially lately.
The phone buzzed again. He didn’t want to answer it, but he couldn’t turn his phone off, not today, and didn’t want to add the stress of dodging calls to what was already guaranteed to be an ugly morning, either.
‘Hello?’ he said.
‘Hello.’ The voice was a distant rockslide, rough and low. It was also wholly unfamiliar, so Cam waited. He was not often one to take the lead.
‘Is this Cameron?’ the voice asked.
‘Cameron,’ the voice continued, not picking up on his cue, ‘I’m calling about your father.’
Of course he was. Cam guessed that much from the area code. But that was about the only thing that he could guess.
‘Thank you,’ Cam said. It was the polite thing to say. He’d been practicing it. But he suddenly felt very exposed. He leaned in toward the store window, hunched over, and cupped a hand over his free ear to keep the world out.
‘You’re welcome,’ the man said, a hesitation in his voice. ‘But that’s not exactly right,’ he continued. ‘I’m Seth Carter. I knew your father. We were friends.’
‘Oh,’ said Cam, his discomfort with the conversation growing. He ducked around to the side of the store, seeking not privacy as much as solitude.
‘And I’m not calling about him as much as I am calling on his behalf.’
Ok, well, uh . . . what’s up?’ Cam said. Too casual. He was an idiot. But this wasn’t a conversation he’d prepared for, and he was no good when he was unprepared.
‘Well, your father—’
‘Paul,’ Cam interrupted. It felt a bit strange to hear him called “his father.”
‘Yes. Your father asked me to call you, in the event of his death, to ask you to come down here and attend to something personally.’
Cam tried to think of what Paul might have thought he could do.
He came up with nothing. So, he said nothing.
‘Cameron, your father wanted me to ask you to come down to California to bury him.’ The man’s voice came through hard, to the point, almost impersonal.
A familiar tone.
Cam ran the last few steps round the corner to the back of the shop and pressed himself up against its cold red brick. He needed a minute to figure out how to answer. It wasn’t that he needed time to decide what he would do; he’d decided instantly. He needed the time to formulate how best to express the absolute certainty with which the answer was no.
He breathed out and turned his head to the side.
A kid was leaning against the wall near the open back door of Lamplight Cleaners, taking a drag from a crooked joint. He’d been here the whole time, Cam realized; the whole time he’d been pacing outside the front door; the whole time he’d been on the phone with this granite voice and its macabre requests. He looked at the kid, who just stood there and smoked, carefree as the breeze.
‘Fuck off,’ Cam said.
‘Excuse me?’ said the man on the phone, losing the coolness in his voice.
The kid looked over at Cam.
‘I’ve got to go,’ Cam said. He hung up, slid the phone back into his pocket, and marched over. He felt righteously angry, but tried to be calm. It was the mature thing to do. And besides, though he may have been a year or two older than this kid, and was much taller, he was gangly and narrow, all length and no substance, while this kid was short and broad. Square shaped.
The kid had blond dreadlocks that fell over his shoulders, a nose and chin that looked like they were trying to touch, and clothes that were too big and too old for him. He eyed Cam up and wordlessly extended the ass end of the finger-stained joint he’d been smoking, but Cam shook his head.
‘No thanks. Can’t today’ he said, caught off guard by the friendliness of the gesture. But he wished he could have said yes. It was the type of morning he’d have loved some help coping with, but the anxiety of being found out would cancel any calm it may have lent him. ‘Sorry,’ he added. Not because he was, but because saying so was hardwired into him.
The kid nodded, butted out against the wall of the shop, and dropped the remains in the pocket of his baggy Cowichan sweater. The beige wool of it was loose and hung off him, the ravens in the pattern drawn thin.
The kid stepped in through the door and looked back. ‘Well then, you need something, man?’
Cam’s fury returned. He stamped his foot. He didn’t understand it, but couldn’t restrain it either. ‘It’s almost . . .’ he started, and then realized that he didn’t even know what time it was anymore, that his indignation had lost its specificity. He thrust out his arm, displaying an old gold watch that spun round his wrist, its strap far too large for him. He stopped it from spinning long enough to check the time again, then continued. ‘It’s twenty after eight . . . It’s fucking . . . it’s twenty after eight. Your sign says eight, on the door.’ He gestured toward the front of the shop.
The kid simply looked at him, weed-numbed, and Cam realized he hadn’t actually answered the question.
‘Yes. I need something. That’s why I’m at a dry cleaner’s. I need to pick up a suit. It’s important. And it’s fucking . . . it’s twenty after eight,’ he said, repeating the only part of the morning he felt sure of.
‘Of course,’ the kid said. ‘All of our customers are important. Come on in and we’ll get you all sorted out.’ He seemed oblivious to Cam’s swearing, which Cam was thankful for. He didn’t usually swear. But he was feeling less and less in control the longer he was awake.
Cam stepped toward the back door, but the kid blocked him with an outstretched hand. ‘Whoa. Can’t come in this way. Wouldn’t be professional. You’ve got to come in through the front.’ The kid jerked his thumb toward the front of the store, then shut the door in Cam’s face.
Around the front, Cam pulled on the glass door yet again, and his wrist flared sharp when it stayed stuck, still locked. Despite having a shorter distance to cover, the kid was still shuffling slowly from the back of the store.
‘Good morning and welcome to Lamplight Cleaners,’ he said, when he finally let Cam in. ‘What can I help you with?’
‘I’m here to pick up a suit. It’s for Adler.’
‘For sure, man. Just hand me that ticket and I’ll get you all taken care of.’
Cam tensed. He walked to the counter. He stood there.
‘I don’t actually have a ticket,’ he said. ‘I wasn’t given one. I wasn’t charged. The woman who works here, the older one with the curly hair . . .’
‘Yeah, Maria. She told me no charge. She said to just come and get it.’
The kid wrinkled his brow and Cam searched for some way to prove his story. He pulled out his driving licence and placed it on the counter. In his licence photo, he’d been trying to grow his hair out to look like a dishevelled Cary Grant, but he couldn’t grow a moustache and his hair was too cow-licked, besides. ‘See, that’s me.’ It wasn’t exactly proof, but he figured if he were some kind of criminal he wouldn’t be going around showing everyone his ID.
The kid beat his fingers on the countertop, one two three four, one two three four. ‘I’m sorry man; I really can’t give you anything without a ticket. You’ll have to talk to Maria.’
‘I did talk to Maria.’
He’d brought the suit in last week and laid it carefully on the counter. She’d picked it up and looked at it and looked at him and didn’t say anything. And the quiet in which he normally thrived had felt different than he was used to, too wide open, too empty. ‘It’s for . . .’ he’d said, trying to fill the silence. ‘My . . . Paul Adler’s dead.’ Then he just stood there. And she’d looked at the suit again, and felt the material of it between her fingers. She hadn’t charged him. ‘For old time’s sake,’ she’d said.
‘I did talk to Maria,’ Cam repeated, ‘and she told me I didn’t need a ticket. She told me to just come in and ask for it.’ He placed his hands flat on the counter and leaned forward, trying to look more significant than he really was. ‘So here I am. I’ve come in. And I’m asking for it.’
The kid sucked his teeth and swayed his head side to side. Cam scowled at the lack of urgency and the lingering skunk smell of the weed.
‘Sorry man. I can’t give anything away without a ticket. You’ll have to wait for Maria to come in. Usually around noon.’
‘I don’t have until noon,’ Cam said, his volume rising unintentionally. ‘I need it now,’ he said, calmer. ‘Call her.’
The kid shook his head. ‘I can’t. I don’t wake her up unless something’s on fire.’
‘Listen.’ Cam closed his eyes and breathed through his nose. ‘I don’t have time to wait for Maria. This is important. My dad died in a car crash last week. It’s his memorial this morning. You’re supposed to wear a suit, a dark suit. This is the only thing I have. It’s his. I found it and it fits me now.’
He didn’t know which expression to use, which gesture, to really sell his point. He smiled first, then frowned. He shrugged and shook his head. He laughed a bit, and then he didn’t. He didn’t know what he was doing, not with any of this. He felt the slow sinking ache in his stomach that he felt when he lied, but didn’t know why. He wasn’t lying.
He looked over the rows of plastic-wrapped suits. Right at the front, separated by a few inches from everything else on the rack: the dark pinstripe, pressed and ready. Maria might have forgotten to mention it to this kid, but she hadn’t forgotten to clean it. There was hope.
But there was also, deep in the back of his mind, a small, niggling hope that the kid would keep saying no, that he wouldn’t get the suit, that he wouldn’t go to the memorial, and that it wouldn’t be his fault. He’d go home and watch films in his room, and he’d come out tomorrow morning when all this would be over. They’d go back to not thinking about Paul. That was what Cam wanted most, the easiest thing, even though he knew it was wrong, that his wants weren’t the only things that mattered.
‘That’s it right there.’ Cam pointed. The kid looked back and forth between the pinstripes and Cam, his face softening. The kid was wavering; Cam just had to give him one last push. ‘Put yourself in my shoes. How would you feel if it was your dad?’
The kid’s face hardened instantly. Cam knew he’d said something wrong before he even got his reply.
‘No,’ the kid said, his voice hard. ‘Sorry. No. Nothing I can do. You’ll have to come back later. This is decent money and I’m not going to mess that up by giving away clothes without tickets. Not for nothing.’ Cam didn’t know what had changed, but he knew he wouldn’t get any further. The kid looked down at a pile of loose papers by the register, shuffled them around, sucked his teeth, and pretended Cam wasn’t there.
‘Just call her,’ he said, but the kid didn’t acknowledge him.
Cam stepped back from the counter and dropped on to one of the blue plastic chairs that were lined up against the wall. He was beaten. And he was perfectly fine being beaten. That was just life. But he wouldn’t be letting just himself down this time, but Kris and Ali, too. And he didn’t want to let that happen, but had no idea what to do about it.
He didn’t care what he wore. He didn’t even care if he went. But Ali, she somehow still cared, and that’s what this was about, after all: other people. The family organizes the event for the friends; the friends come to support the family. They expect things of one another. The dead don’t care.
Ali had told him she’d arrange this for him, but he’d insisted he do it himself. He was eighteen. He shouldn’t need his mother to sort out clothes for him.
But like so many other things, he’d somehow managed to fuck this up. And he felt a familiar panic settling in because of it, that constant cold pressure at the top of his lungs. He put his hand on his chest, placing pressure like he’d always seen done in movies with bad cuts and bullet holes.
He looked back at the kid who still pointedly shuffled papers. He might not be able to get what he came for, but he’d get something.
‘Hey,’ he started.
‘No,’ the kid said.
And he wanted to just take that no and leave, but he said, ‘You got any more of that weed? I’ve got money.’ He shoved his hand into his pocket and came out with a few wrinkled twenties.
The kid nodded, slowly, as if stalling to sniff out a trap. Cam got up and walked toward the counter, but was met again by the outstretched hand and a lazy jerk of the thumb. ‘Out back,’ the kid said. ‘Can’t do it here.’ He inclined his head. ‘That’s unprofessional.’
Cam was waiting impatiently at the back of the shop when the door swung wide and the kid stepped out, the old butt already crooked in his mouth. He lit it the second his foot crossed the threshold, and he inhaled and passed it over to Cam, who took a drag and tried not to cough. The kid pulled a sandwich bag of joints from his sweater. ‘Five each.’
Cam bought two and slipped them into his back pocket, and he and the kid passed the old half joint back and forth in silence in the cold morning wind that blew in off the sea. He looked across English Bay to where the snow cap still clung to the top of Cypress Mountain. The snow was melting, though slower this year than previous and not nearly quick enough for his tastes. The mountain dwarfed the skyscrapers in the downtown core, made them look trivial, temporary. One day they would all be gone, but that mountain would still be there. That comforted him for some reason.
He looked at the kid, whose jeans were rolled up three to four times at the cuff but still dragged across the ground, and he felt something not wholly unfamiliar, but wholly unexpected. He felt almost like he and this kid were friends now. They were hanging out, smoking a joint in near perfect silence, the same as real friends do. And what was the difference really, between acting like friends and actually being so?
He looked in through the open back door of the cleaner’s where the plastic that wrapped the suits flapped and fluttered in the breeze.
And he thought maybe this kid didn’t have many friends either. Maybe this small connection was enough to get the kid to reconsider. He pinched the last of the skin-and-smoke stained paper between his fingers, watched the way it flared during gusts of cold air. There was only enough left for one more drag. He extended the joint to the kid and said, ‘You kill it.’
He’d preface his request with an act of kindness. The kid reached out for it, but just before their fingers touched, it slipped from Cam’s grip and he watched it tumble end over end to the concrete. The kid regarded him with an expression that surprised him, as it too was not wholly unfamiliar, but wholly unexpected, one that said I’m just disappointed.
The kid bent down to pick up the still smouldering smoke. And Cam had a thought, one that any other day he would have dismissed. But between his natural tension and chemical calm, it felt possible, almost necessary. The kid’s dreads swung low and swayed shadows across the stone. And Cam, desperate now, placed a hand on the kid’s shoulder, and braced his feet against the coarse earth, and shoved.
The kid spun as he fell to the ground.
Cam never saw him land; he was already through the door, dashing madly through the rows of garments. He grabbed the suit off the rack as he ran past it. The hook caught the bar and the rack tipped and wobbled. He slammed his hip on the edge of the counter and it pinballed him into the wall, where his shoulder slid across ads for bake sales and car washes and little concerts. He burst from the front door and crossed the sidewalk in one step.
The traffic in Kitsilano moved slowly in the mornings under the burden of the university commute, so he picked his path and dodged between the crawling cars. He crossed West Broadway, and cut down through every alley and side street he could find. The suit whipped behind him as he ran, a sail come loose in a storm.
He tried not to imagine what would happen if he got caught, willed himself faster.
He was a criminal now, an outlaw. He was Robin Hood. But he didn’t feel much like Errol Flynn. He wasn’t cool or dashing. He was frantic and terrified and in over his head.
Colour Me In by Sophie Wellstood
Valentine’s day. A bitter, sunless day; the sort of London day when the sickly light does not change from dawn to dusk, a day when abandoned foil balloons float across sleet-sodden clouds, when collars are turned up and heads bent down, a day when even the pigeons shiver and shrug and retreat beneath railway arches and guttering.
I stood in our hallway.
Chris held onto the front door, bare feet tippy-toeing on the tiles. ‘So look after yourself, yeah?’ she said. ‘Take care. I’m -’
‘Sorry, I know.’ I leaned in for a final kiss. She offered me her cheek. ‘The keys. Come on, I need the keys.’ She put her hand out. ‘Look. If it all goes tits up you can always – well, there’s the sofa – .’
She put the keys in her back pocket, folded her arms. ‘Babe. You’ll be fine. The world’s your oyster. The sky’s the limit.’
I heard a car horn, a couple of thuds of a bass line, a door slamming. I turned to see a young woman with blonde dreads and ridiculous spectacles opening the back of a jeep and lifting out a suitcase. Then a plant. Then a guitar. And a typewriter.
‘Perfect,’ I said. ‘Out with the old, in with the new.’
‘Shit. She didn’t – ’
‘Yeah, right. I’ll see you around. Babe.’
I lifted my backpack onto my shoulders, pulled out the handle on my wheelie and walked. Chin up, Wyn, chin up. Speccie stood by the gate, studded and pierced and rabbit-eyed rigid – and holding a single red rose. I smile, smile, smiled.
‘Remind her to condition,’ I said, tapping my scalp. ‘Horribly flaky. And to floss. Dreadful gum disease.’ I looked back at Chris. She was shaking her head. I moved closer. ‘And she really loves it if you – ,’ I patted Speccie’s backside, ‘call her Kanye.’
I checked into my hotel room at noon and, just like a real adult, methodically ate all the mini-bar snacks and appropriated all the toiletries. I ordered room service: pizza and chips, then a chicken curry. I watched TV, I cried, I stared out of the window at the airport car park, I stared at myself in the monstrously magnifying bathroom mirror and cried again. Sleep did not come. By two a.m. insomnia had moved in, pulled up a chair and presented to me, for the purposes of reviewing in high definition, every single cretinous decision I had ever made since I began to exist.
It was in a state of greasy, sugary dread that I finally boarded the 747. It was more a small city than an aeroplane. As it pulled from the tarmac and roared into the dawn, I turned to the window and watched London, the motorways and all the English lights growing smaller and smaller until we were briefly enveloped by clouds and then there was nothing, just space, and the thin line of a brilliant blue and purple sunrise. For a tiny, miniature moment, I looked over the earth at the tip of the sun pushing up into another day from another hemisphere. I had really done it. I was above the world. My eyes began to close. The hum of the engines nudged me into that exhausted place where thoughts begin to slip and twist themselves into dreams, and I felt myself, at last, sliding into a sweet, dark oblivion.
And almost immediately, it seemed, I felt a hand shaking my shoulder.
‘Miss? You all right?’ The man bedside me looked anxious. ‘You were shouting.’
I shut my eyes again. ‘I’m fine,’ I said. ‘Sorry.’
‘You said a terrible word, so you did. You want to watch yourself. Something wrong?’
Jesus Christ. I did not need his analysis. ‘I’m fine. Sorry for swearing. It happens sometimes.’
He put his headphones on. ‘You want to watch yourself.’
People say that bad things come in threes, don’t they? It’s true. The first bad thing to come that year was the notification that my A level re-retakes were nowhere near what I needed for my plan to save the world. Then the loss of my job in the knicker department of the dullest shop in the universe was the second, and the loss of my girlfriend was the third.
But then those self same people – people just like my ex, Christine, turn around and say, Hey, Wyn, look on the bright side, babe, silver linings. All’s well, time heals, count blessings, pull socks up, keep chins up. Always look on the bright side. As one door closes.
The door that closed for me belonged to the over-priced cockroach sanctuary I shared with Chris and her various stoner mates. I was nineteen, going on ninety. My life was filtered monochrome. Hashtag orphan. Hashtag dumped. Hashtag running away.
February the sixteenth. From out of thousands of miles of spinning ocean and infinite sky, New Zealand appeared. We bumped onto the tarmac and I stared through the window at a shimmering blue afternoon. I had flown from the sleeting English winter into a dazzling Kiwi summer.
I drifted along with the crowds, following sign after sign until I was waved through customs and finally stepped out into my brave new world. I scanned the people waiting there, looking for the elderly woman with whom I had exchanged dozens of emails.
Almost immediately I saw an arm waving wildly above the crowds, and a presidential voice called, ‘Blodwyn! Blodwyn Parry-Jones! It is I!’
I had no memory of her, but she insisted we had met just the once, fifteen years ago, at my mum’s memorial; she was a friend of Alwyn and Kate, my mother’s long-dead adoptive parents. She’d occasionally written, the handwriting inky and ornate, and then emailed as the years passed. Keeping a kindly eye, she’d said. Sometimes she’d remembered my birthday and sent cards with photographs of a sprawling farmhouse and vast, rolling hills baked in sunshine. A couple of years ago the card contained a photo of a round-tummied puppy having a face-off with a chicken.
‘Just got this little bugger last week, called him Teddy,’ I’d read on the back. ‘Piddles everywhere. I’m heading the same way. Your pal, E.’
Edith called herself an ‘ageing smallholder, lazy, bossy.’ Every summer she invited itinerants and travellers to camp and work, plus anyone else who could pick apples, pull weeds and go with the flow. I had endured numerous insufferable Ladies’ Lingerie team meetings by conjuring up a daydream of eating a table-sized apple pie and cuddling a milky puppy. When the idea came, it seemed the most preposterous yet simple response to my three bad things.
‘May I come and stay?’ I had emailed, hands shaking. ‘Chris has dumped me and my manager sacked me for arguing about how women’s underwear adverts demean normal body shapes and I haven’t got into Uni and I’m having an early mid-life crisis. But I’ll earn my keep. I’ll pick apples. Anything.’
‘Come,’ said the reply, ‘and sod them all.’
‘It is I!’
I waved back, breathed again.
A silver-haired Amazon approached me. ‘Sorry if you’ve been waiting, had to use the facilities. Onions and artichokes.’ She put her hands on her hips and laughed. ‘You could be your father’s twin. How bloody freaky.’ She pulled me into her.
My face was pressed against warm, soft skin and I smelled earth and peppermint. And something else, something sharp and a little sour. Alcohol.
‘You must be knackered. Come on, I’m parked over there. Let’s get out of this shithole.’ She picked up my backpack from the trolley and strode off towards the car park.
I trotted behind her with my wheelie. Edith Flowers was of indeterminate age. I’d never asked. Her hair was messy and probably home-cut. The orange skirt and pink crocs dazzled. The lines around her eyes curled like the rays of the sun.
She moved quickly through the airport crowds.
‘In you get,’ she said, pointing at the passenger door of a VW camper van. ‘It’s a couple of hours or so. You can flop in the back if you need to.’ She pulled open the sliding door and threw my bags in. The van was beautifully kitted out, with a little stove, curtains, bright cushions. ‘I often kip in here if I’m away for the night. Just say if you want to lie down.’ She walked around and settled into the driver’s seat. ‘Would you like some coffee? I have coffee. Here.’ She dug out a thermos from a large canvas bag and poured a little into the cup. It was extremely strong and sweet. Perfect.
And then, unbidden and unexpected, tears slipped from my eyes.
Edith patted my knee, her voice gentle. ‘Look at you, little Wyn. Look how you grew up.’
She revved the engine hard, put the van into gear and we cruised out of the car park. The air was full of hot summer grass, insects, birdsong. The road took us away from Auckland’s clean, wide streets, gradually twisting north past a sparkling bay and eventually into the Coromandel hills. The views down to the wild coast, the sunshine, the parrots and the endless, endless miles of green – God, this was not north London. I wound the window down, put my head out and breathed.
I thought of my ex-manager, Pamela Palmer. Precious, perfect Pamela, queen of Ladies’ Lingerie and Nightwear. She of the salon hair, ergonomic chair, supermarket salads and keyboard wet wipes. Not really managerial material, are you, Blodwyn? she’d said, smiling, as she showed me her restructuring plans. I spun Pamela around in her ergonomic chair. It was such fun I spun her again and again until she fell out and threw up.
Edith accelerated past a group of cyclists. ‘The planet is made up of ninety-nine per cent shitheads and I can’t be doing with any of them.’ She changed down to second as we turned off the main road onto a high-banked gravel track flanked by huge ferns. ‘Up here it’s different. You’ll see.’
We bumped along for another mile or so, heading further up into the hills, branches scraping the sides of the van. I was beyond tiredness now and was running on adrenaline and the contents of the thermos.
‘Et voilà,’ Edith said as we passed through an iron gate and into the farmyard. A path fringed with wildflowers and ferns led directly ahead of us towards the farmhouse: a large, L-shaped wooden building with steps leading up to a veranda, over which climbed roses and clematis, and where a chunky brown Labrador lay fast asleep on a sofa. Edith pulled up next to a block of old sheds, got out of the van and called to the dog. He trotted down the veranda steps.
‘Is my fortune still safe then, fatso?’ Edith said, rubbing his head. I got out, stretched and smiled. Teddy sniffed me up and down, then rolled onto his back, tongue out, tail sweeping furiously across the gravel and offered me his substantial stomach. My kind of dog. I got down and cuddled him.
‘Come,’ Edith said, unloading my bags. ‘It’s everso ’umble, guvnor, but I calls it ’ome.’
I kissed Teddy’s nose and followed Edith. ‘It’s beautiful,’ I said, standing at the front door, pots of geraniums around me. Jet lag, time zones and the shift of seasons were beginning to rob me of the power of speech. ‘I don’t have the words. Gorgeous.’
Two chickens had scampered up to us and were scuttling around Edith’s feet.
‘Thank you,’ she said, and gave the birds a gentle shove. ‘Although I can’t take credit for the view. But yes, I like it, too. Come on, ladies, tea time.’ She opened the door and the chickens ran ahead of her. ‘Jail breakers, these two. Duane hates me letting me them in the house, but sod him, if they want a bit of fruit cake of an afternoon, why the hell not?’
‘Chicken Duane?’ I said, following all three of them into a large, airy kitchen. His name had been mentioned in emails. The birds headed for a dresser and circled Edith whilst she opened one of its cupboards and pulled out a battered tin. She took a handful of cake and crumbled it onto the floor.
‘Himself,’ she said. ‘You’ll meet him tomorrow. It’s nearly chop-chop time, isn’t it, dears? Enjoy it while you can. He does all that for me,’ she whispered, drawing a finger across her throat. ‘I don’t have the stomach for it any more.’ She opened the fridge and pulled out a bottle of wine. ‘Duane’s ok. He didn’t have the best start in life. Now then. A small sharpener?’
‘Dim dioch. Just a coffee, thanks.’
She poured a glass of wine and pointed me to the kettle. ‘You must make yourself at home. And we must have food. Come.’
I lay on the soft, single bed in my tiny room at the back of the house. It was furnished with just a small dresser and a desk with a vase of wild flowers on it. I pulled the pillow up around my ears. It smelled of washing powder and lavender, clean and old-fashioned. Exhaustion flowed over me in great waves, but I fought against sleep and instead let my eyes rest on a watercolour hanging to the side of the window, drawing me into a wild, mountainous landscape, more water and sky than earth. As the smells of supper drifted up from the kitchen, and Edith’s voice joined in with some tinkling classical music, I imagined the artist standing out in that wilderness, their hands and eyes immersed in the indifferent, brutal world around them, bracing themself against the wind, facing those fierce hills, feeling hopelessly small beneath that great grey sky, the space above, the emptiness.
Two tiny specks of russet were suspended above the darkest peak. I let go of the pillow and sat up, my heart kicking. It took two steps to be close to the painting and lift it off the wall. I knew it. I knew the view. It was Wales, my Wales. I was looking at a pair of buzzards soaring over the lake at Cwm Bychan, so clear and known to me I heard them mewing, tasted the wet, brackish air. A name was scratched into the lower right hand corner of the canvas. I traced my finger over the tiny, spiky letters. I breathed very, very slowly and said the words out loud. Then I returned the painting to the wall, sat back down on the bed and stared at my knees.
Edith called me from the kitchen. ‘Are you still with us? Can you eat?’
We carried wine and casserole out to the veranda. The air had cooled. I pulled a blanket over my legs and slid into a limp exhaustion, Teddy’s head heavy and warm on my lap. Moths began to appear and batter themselves against the lights.
‘The painting,’ I said. ‘I wasn’t expecting that.’
Edith refilled my glass. ‘Ah.’
‘When – how did you get it?’ I had no real memories of my artist mother, although occasionally the smell of paint would provoke a hot anxiety and a half-formed sensation of a face close to mine, pale skin, thick eyebrows.
Edith stared up at the moths. ‘I brought it back with me after the memorial. I liked it.’ She drained her glass, was silent for a few moments then looked back at me. ‘Do you remember any of it? The memorial?’
I shook my head.
‘You were tiny. Of course you don’t.’ She refilled her glass. ‘And of course you must miss your father, too?’
I shrugged. ‘It’s been a while now. I’m used to it.’
Some hours later I woke suddenly to a silvery darkness, mouth dry, sensing I had been dreaming hard and loud. I breathed slowly, deeply. In through the nose, count to five, out through the mouth. Let it pass, it will pass. I waited for the sounds of north London, for Chris’s snoring, for the rest of the gang to come in from clubbing, for the laughter and scraping chairs in the kitchen. Nothing. I got out of bed and opened the window. The air in the bedroom chilled and then a lone sheep began to call again and again; a long, low throaty cry travelling over grass and stone and bramble.
There was no reply.