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First Chapters: 2018 Shortlist

Here are the first chapters of the six books shortlisted for the Caledonia Novel Award 2018, starting with the winning novel.

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal

                                    SILAS REED’S SHOP OF CURIOSITIES ANTIQUE AND NEW

Silas is sitting at his desk, a stuffed turtledove cradled in his palm. The cellar is as still and quiet as a tomb, except for the slow gusts of his breath which nudge the feathers. It gives the bird the appearance of movement, as if the ghost of the creature were about to reinhabit its sharp grey beak and pick over oyster shells from the Thames.

Silas puckers his lips as he works and, in the lamplight, he is not unhandsome. He has retained a full head of hair in his thirty-eighth year, and it shows no sign of silvering. He looks around him for a moment, at the glass bottles which line the walls, each labelled and filled with the bloated hulks of pickled specimens. Swollen lambs, snakes, lizards and kittens press against the edges of their confinement.

‘Don’t wriggle free of me now, you little rascal,’ he mutters, picking up the pliers and tightening the wire on the bird’s claws. He likes to talk to his creatures, to make up histories which have landed them on his slab, though he could not say why. After considering many imagined scenarios for this dove—disrupting barges on the canal, nesting in a sail of The Odyssey—he settled on one pretence he liked; and so he rebukes this companion often for its invented habit of attacking cress-sellers. He releases his hold on the stuffed dove, and it sits stiffly on the wooden post.

‘There!’ he exclaims, leaning back and pushing his hair out of his eyes. ‘And perhaps this’ll teach you a lesson for knocking that bunch of greens out of that little girl’s arms.’ He is satisfied with this commission, especially given that he rushed the final stages as he grew too absorbed in the skeletisation of a bat. The artist should be pleased nonetheless: the bird is well-mounted, and frozen as if in mid-flight, its wings forming a perfect ‘V’. What’s more, Silas has skimmed further profit by adding another dove heart to one of the yellowed jars. Little browned orbs float in preserving fluid, ready to fetch a good price from alchemists and apothecaries.

Silas tidies the workshop, wiping and straightening his tools. He is halfway up the ladder rungs, his hand pressing against the base of the trap-door, when the consumptive wheeze of the bell sounds.

He knows at once who is at the door. Sick of working through Albie’s knockings, which meant that the boy took the best specimens to medical students, osteological shops and other collectors, Silas fitted a crude system of wires, pulleys and springs, and told only Albie where to find the bell pull.

He hurries through his shop. Perhaps this will be the day when he opens the door and finds Albie holding a creature beyond his wildest imaginings.

After all, if Silas’s collection is to stand the test of time, he needs something truly exceptional to complete it. He thinks of the bakery nearby on Fleet Street, which made a poor trade with its bulky wholemeal loaves, good only for doorstops. Then the baker, on the brink of debtors’ prison, started to pickle strawberries in sugar and sell them by the jar. It transformed the shop, made it famous even in tourist pamphlets of the city.

This is what Silas’s museum will need: a special, unique item which he hopes Albie might one day bring. The trouble is, he often thinks he has found it—the pickled strawberry which will make his name—but then he finishes the work and he finds himself hounded by doubts, by the ache for more. The pathologists and collectors he admires—men of learning and medicine like John Hunter, Richard Bright and Astley Cooper—have no shortage of specimens. He has eavesdropped on the conversations of medical men, sat white with jealousy in drinking holes opposite King’s College London as they’ve discussed the morning’s dissections. He might lack their connections, but surely, surely, one day Albie will bring him something—his hand trembles—remarkable. Then, his name will be etched on a museum entrance, and all of his work, all of his toil, will be recognised. He imagines Flick’s pride, her hand in the small of his back.

‘Albie,’ Silas says, opening the door a sliver. Thames fog snakes in. His chest quickens, but he knows to stay calm, to rein in his keenness. It is an interaction carefully staged, and Silas is never sure whose hand controls the puppet strings.

A ten-year-old child grins back at him (‘ten, I knows, Sir, because I was born on the day the Queen married Albert’). A single yellow tooth is planted in the middle of his upper gums like a gallows.

Silas glances down the dead-end alley, at its ramshackle houses like a row of drunks, each tottering further forward than the last. It might be dark and empty, but it is never quiet.

‘Thought you wasn’t coming,’ Albie says, taking a step back. ‘I was on the point of taking my haul to Porter’s—’

‘Patience, Albie,’ Silas says, tweaking him under the chin to reassert his position. The boy flinches. ‘What you got me, child? The foreleg of a Megalosaurus, or perhaps the head of a mermaid?’

‘A bit chilly for mermaids in Regent’s Canal at this time of year, Sir, but that other creature – Mega-what-sumfink – says he’ll leave you a knee when he pops it.’

‘Kind of him.’

Albie blows into his sleeve. ‘I got you some right jewels all the same.’

The boy unravels the cord of his sack. Silas’s eyes follow his fingers. A pocket of air escapes, gamey, sweet and putrid, and Silas raises a hand to his nose. He can never stand the smells of the dead; the shop is as clean as a chemist’s, and each day he battles the black coal smoke, the fur-dust, and the stink. He would like to uncork the miniature glass bottle of lavender oil that he stores in his waistcoat, to dab it on his upper lip to allay the stench, but he does not want to distract the boy—Albie has the attention span of a shrew on his finest days.

Albie dips a hand into the bag. He pauses. ‘It’s a beauty,’ he says, whipping his hand out and proffering the corpse of a ginger cat. ‘And red, just as you like them.’

Silas lifts the animal into the light. Its needle-sharp teeth are bared in rigor mortis. He feels its swollen belly, takes in its ginger fur greying at the snout. Fat and slow; he should have guessed. True to form, he pricks his finger on its shattered skull.

‘And I suppose this one tripped under a cart, too?’

‘Well, exactly, Sir. How did you—’

‘Nothing to do with you, I should imagine.’

‘Why, Sir—the accusation! If the dead cat could speak, he’d tell you all about that mucker of a flower seller, not a thought for the beast sleeping peaceably under its wheel—’

He trails off when Silas glances at the fresh red scorings on his wrist. Albie pulls down his sleeve. ‘From a brawl, Sir. Nought to do with the cat—but if you knew, Sir, how hard it is with the bone grubbers pinching the best of the trade—’

‘‘What else?’ Silas demands. ‘I’ve told you before, the skeleton’s good for nought with half his brains out, and the pelt bloodstained to boot.’

The boy frowns, then winks, grappling with the sack, pretending it is alive. He snorts when Silas winces.

Silas summons a smirk that feels hollow on his lips. Albie pulls out three rats and a bird which writhes with maggots. Silas’s stomach turns. Its innards have been gutted. Probably into Albie’s stew for dinner, he thinks.

‘A pittance,’ Silas says, starting to close the door. ‘Take it to Porter’s, see what they—’

‘Hang it, Sir, the last piece’d be the making of Porter’s—’

Silas pauses, curses. He hates to see this urchin, this bricky street brat, tease him. It makes him draw back into himself, to recall himself at Albie’s age, running heavy clay saggars across the pottery yard, his arms aching from his mother’s fists. It makes him wonder if he’s ever truly left that life, as even now he’ll let himself be hoodwinked by a single-toothed imp.

Silas says nothing. He feigns a yawn, but watches through a sideways crocodile eye that betrays his interest by not blinking.

With the flourish of a chef with a silver cloche, Albie grins, and unmasks the sacking to present two dead puppies.

At least, Silas thinks it is two puppies, but when he grabs hold of the limbs, he notices only one scruff. One neck. One head. The skull is segmented.

Silas gasps, smiles. He runs his fingers along the seam of its crown to check it isn’t a trick. He wouldn’t put it past Albie to join two dogs with a needle and thread if it fetched him a few more pennies. He holds it up again, sees its silhouette against his gas lamp, squeezes its legs, the cartilage of its joints, the stones of its vertebrae.

‘This is more like it, eh,’ he breathes. ‘Oh yes.’

‘A florin for’t,’ Albie says. ‘No less—’

Silas laughs, pulls out a dogskin purse. ‘A shilling, that’s all. And you can come in, visit my workshop.’ Albie shakes his head, steps further into the alley and looks around him. A look almost like fear passes over the boy’s face, but it soon vanishes when Silas tips the coin into his hand. Albie hawks and spits his phlegmed disdain on to the cobbles.

‘A bob? Would you have a lad starve—’

But Silas has closed the door, and ignores the hammering which follows.

‘If the dead cat could speak,’ Silas muses on Albie’s earlier words. ‘Perhaps we might not like his story, young Alb.’

                                                                                 BOY

After Silas closes the door, Albie relaxes at last.

He bites the shilling between his tooth and gums, for no reason except that he has seen other men do the same. He sucks on it. It tastes bloody. He is pleased; he never expected a florin. But if you ask for a florin and you get a bob, what happens if you ask for a bob? He shrugs, spits it out and then tucks it into his pocket. He will buy a bag of boiled pigs’ ears for his breakfast, and give his sister the rest. As if agreeing with the idea, his stomach rumbles, and it quickens his keenness to leave the chill quiet of the alley. Nobody lives in it except Silas, and he can never fathom why – surely even the most destitute beggar wouldn’t mind the meaty, chemical stink? Besides, he has another task to complete, and he’s already late.

There is a second hemp sack next to his Dead Creatures bag, which contains tiny skirts he sewed through the night. He is careful never to mix the two. Sometimes, as he hands over the bag at the doll shop, he is convinced he has muddled them, and he feels an arrow-quiver in his heart. He would not like to see Mrs Salter’s gnarled face if she opened a bag of maggoty rats.

He shoulders both sacks, blows on his little fists to warm them, and takes off at a run, zig-zagging through the streets. His rickety legs bow outwards. He runs west, through Soho with its banked muck, piss-reeks, and gaunt whores who track his racing legs with tatty eyes, like worn-out cats watch a fly. The sun is rising, picking out the puddles in orange.

He emerges onto Regent’s Street, glances at the shop which sells sets of sets of teeth for five guineas, taps his single tooth with his tongue, and then catapaults into the path of a horse. It bucks and rears. He leaps back and masters his fear by bellowing at the rider, ‘Watch it, cove!’

And before the man has had a chance to shout back at him or crack him with his whip, Albie has darted across the street, and crossed the threshold of Mrs Salter’s Doll Emporium.

                                                       MRS SALTER’S DOLL EMPORIUM

Iris runs her thumbnail down the seams of the miniature skirts, poised to crack the shells of any fleas. She picks at a loose thread. She sucks the end, knots it cleanly.

Her mistress Mrs Salter is yet to rise for the day, but her twin sister sits behind her, head bowed over her sewing.

‘Flea-less, at least. Do take more care with the threads, though,’ Iris says to Albie. ‘There’s a whole city of seamstresses who’d sell their newborns to pinch the work off you.’

Albie wrinkles his nose and extracts a particularly blackened curl of snot with his finger. ‘But Miss, my sister’s got influenza and I nursed her through the night—it ain’t fair—’

‘Poor thing.’ Iris looks around, but her sister Rose is preoccupied. She lowers her voice. ‘But you must remember you are dealing with a devil, not a woman, in Mrs Salter, and fairness never has been a concern of hers. Have you ever seen her stick out her tongue?’

Albie shakes his head.

‘It’s forked.’

Albie grins, and it is such an open smile, so free of artifice, that Iris wants to embrace him. His mucky dark hair, his single fang-tooth, his soot-stained face—none of these things are his fault. In another world, he could have been born into their family in Hackney.

She hands him the next stack of fabric, checks again that Rose isn’t looking, and then proffers sixpence. She planned to put it towards a new paintbrush. ‘To buy broth for your sister.’

Albie stares at the coin, hesitant.

‘It isn’t a trick,’ she says.

‘Thank you, Miss,’ he says, his eyes as black as marbles. Then he snatches it from her, as if afraid she’ll change her mind, and scampers out of the shop, almost barrelling into the Italian organ-grinder who swats him with his cane.

Iris watches him go and allows herself to inhale. He may be a filthy little urchin, but even so she can never understand why he stinks quite so foully of decay.


Dark Barn by L P Fergusson

Chapter One

The explosion was deafening. It juddered up through the Messerschmitt, into Lukas Schiller’s body. He felt his stomach twist, a fizz of terror squeezing the tip of his tongue. Had he been hit? He strained around in his seat, staring into the twilight. The sky was empty. No puffs of ack ack, no Spitfires. He looked at the temperature gauge; 120°C and climbing. What the hell just happened? Could he make it back across the English Channel, back to the German base at Coquelles? Yes, maybe. But not up here. He must drop down, hide in the cloud base, let the engine cool.

‘Now, mein Schatzchen,’ he said, ‘See how carefully I treat you. I won’t let you burn your insides out.’

He reached forward to turn off the ignition. His hand was trembling; he must steady himself. The engine cut and he was gliding now, his breath booming in his helmet as he watched the needles drop. There was even time to glimpse enemy fields between the breaks in the clouds. They were white with snow like the Alps of Swabia. He felt calmer, listening to the gale outside, calm enough to wonder if he would ever walk in the mountains again, see the ice crystals forming rainbows in front of his eyes.

He pulled off his oxygen mask to give himself more freedom and a smell smacked into his nostrils, hot metal and fuel. Waves of panic swelled inside him, pushing up into his throat. He was low now, eight hundred feet, grey clouds boiling all around him. Time to fire up the engine again. Metal screamed against metal, his ears pulsed under the agonising volume then…

Silence.

The engine had seized.

He needed to move fast. He tore off his flying helmet, his elbows crashing against the cockpit. He grabbed at the lever and jettisoned the canopy. The sudden explosion of wind and noise was terrifying. He gasped, gulped at the freezing air. The canopy was wrenched from his hand. He heard it grating along the fuselage behind. He released his seat belt, pushed up into the slipstream. Pushed again. And again. He was jammed. His parachute pack was wedged, the gale raging around him, forcing his body down. Beneath him he felt his plane begin her final dive, a roll to the right, a drop of her nose. He was going down with her, down into the void. With a great pump of adrenaline, Lukas leant into the roll and pushed with all his might.

And he was out, rolling along the side of the plane, the powerstorm tossing him like a rag doll. He tried to brace his head with his arms, certain he was going to smash into the tail section but then he was falling. He was clear. Tumbling through the sky, he reached up, grasped the handle and pulled.

Nothing happened. He was dropping like a stone, the wind thundering in his ears. Fields widened, expanding beneath him as he plummeted. Cold earth, hard as iron, rushing towards him. He grappled behind his neck, his hands desperately trying to feel the opening to the pack to help the ’chute out. Billows of silk and line bubbled up by his side, wrapping itself around his arm. Lukas twisted and tossed his body about to give it free passage. Silk streamed past him. He looked up, saw the parachute fill, felt the full force of the deceleration in his shoulder and pain – a panting, searing pain. The cord shook the arm free, dropping it limp and useless by his side. He twisted, trying to lessen the pressure of the harness against his shoulder but the ground was coming up fast. The parachute rotated him. His plane swam into focus, way over there, in the distance. She was diving silently down towards a field. A herd of cows bolted away from under her, their tails held high, their hooves kicking up lumps of mud and snow. His plane sank out of sight, over a ridge and he heard a muffled thud as she hit the earth. The parachute spiralled him round again and the wind carried him further away from her, swinging him towards some trees. As he pendulumed down towards a spinney he heard her ammunition begin to fire, a fanfare calling the enemy to muster and search but as he crashed down through the branches he heard a crackling explosion. His Messerschmitt had destroyed herself.

Chapter Two

Millie Sanger woke with a start. It was still dark outside but she could hear noises coming up from the farmyard. One morning, she thought, just one morning, let me be in the cowshed before that blasted Land Girl. Cursing, she pulled her clothes out from under the bedding, still warm from her body and hauled them on over her pyjamas. She struggled with the buttons; she’d always thought it was old people who got chilblains but this morning her fingers itched like hell. Downstairs she pulled on one of her husband’s overcoats. It completely swamped her but it was warm. She wrapped a piece of binder twine several times round her waist, pulling it tight. Struggling to bend, she pulled on her boots, snatched her gloves off the line above the range and tied a headscarf around her ears before heading out into the darkness.

The light from the milking shed seeped out along the base of the blackout baffles. Not a cow in sight. Brigsie had rounded them up into the byres all on her own. Millie stood for a moment, composing herself, fighting down her unreasonable irritation. She ducked into the shed and called out,

‘Why didn’t you wake me?’

Brigsie’s head popped up over the back of a cow.

‘I thought you needed your sleep,’ and that, thought Millie, is the impossibly irritating thing about Brigsie, her intentions are so kind but she makes me feel utterly inadequate and idle.

‘Thanks, Brigsie,’ she said.

The head disappeared again but Brigsie’s voice floated up over the animals into the steamy air.

‘Mrs Wilson saw a plane come down last night.’

‘Did she?’ Millie said. Her golden Labrador came trotting up the shed towards her, making the cows shift and stamp in their byres. He swerved as a cloven hoof lashed out backwards but skittered on, his tail wagging as he trotted. She squatted down, pulled gently on the dog’s ears, soft as suede. ‘You’ll get such a kick one day, Gyp,’ she whispered, laying a kiss on the top of his head.

‘Said it didn’t make a noise at all,’ Brigsie was saying, ‘no flames, nothing. Disappeared over the horizon.’

‘That’s good then.’

Millie went through to the dairy to collect a clean bucket.

‘It came down somewhere near Norrington,’ Brigsie called out, ‘over at Manor Farm. Morney Beswick took a gang of his men up there with pitchforks to get the crew.’ Millie squeezed a path between two cows in the double byre, pressed the stool against her coat and sat.

‘Morney would,’ she said.

The milk whined into the bucket, the sound growing lush and deep as it filled.

‘It must have blown up when it hit the ground,’ Brigsie called. ‘They heard the explosion from a mile away. By the time they got there it was completely burned out.’ Millie rested her head against the flank of the cow, the rhythm of the milk squirting into the bucket soothing her.

‘How many bodies?’

‘It was a fighter apparently, so just the one. Blown to pieces they say.’

‘Poor chap.’

‘You wouldn’t say that if you had family in Bristol. Well over a hundred dead I heard. Morney’s got a daughter over there. He told the men to skewer any crew they found on the spot.’

‘Blown to bits or skewered by Morney. Some choice.’

 

On the other side of the combe, Hugh Adamson was battling with a starting handle. The tractor rumbled twice, shuddered and spat out a cloud of exhaust, black as soot, before settling down to a regular chug. He climbed up into the seat and turned out of his farmyard onto the lane leading over the Downs to Enington Farm to collect Millie’s churns from the dairy.

Getting the Fordson going in the morning always warmed him up but as he travelled the mile and a half along the top of the Downs, the December wind began to bite through his army great coat and he hunkered down into the collar. He used to be able to see Millie’s lights from here, burning out in the darkness on the other side of the combe but not now. Not since the blackout. The sky ahead seemed paler but he couldn’t work out if it was the dawn or just the glow of the snowfields.

The tractor began to drop into the combe and the roof of a dark barn, crouching in the valley, rose up into his field of vision. Bad business all that, he thought. Place still gave him the spooks, the way the mist lay in that airless gorge. As he watched, a pair of rooks rose up from the snow like black rags blowing in the wind. Millie should have that barn pulled down. It’s too far from the dairy to be any use to her and God knows, she could reuse the materials.

He pushed the Fordson into a lower gear to get a bit more power, get him past the combe as quickly as possible and as the track rose once more, so did his mood. He saw the roofs of Enington Farm ahead; heard the cows stumbling out of the shed, their hooves clacking on the concrete.

‘Morning ladies,’ he shouted over the noise of the engine as he turned into the yard.

Millie was swamped by Adam’s old coat. He wished she wouldn’t wear the damned thing. About a week after it all happened, he’d walked into her kitchen and she was wearing that damned coat, bending forward, putting something in the bottom oven and he thought for all the world that Adam was back. He told her it was morbid to go on wearing it. Well, he didn’t say that exactly. He said he thought it was odd but she’d shrugged, said it was warm.

Millie turned, raised a hand and waved. One of the cows slipped beside her, a hoof veering sideways through the muck. The animal lumbered and tossed her head, slumping against the others.

‘Whoa, Patty – get a move on,’ Millie shouted, slapping her on the rump. Hugh smiled. Millie was certain cows with names were more productive.

‘C’mon, move Daisy, move,’ as she slapped another.

He could see Brigsie inside the shed. That woman never felt the cold. No coat or gloves, just her Land Army jodhpurs and jumper. There she was, built like an Amazon, a big, powerful woman, solid, pushing a cow round to face the exit. That type of woman pumped out heat. He half expected to see steam rising off her shoulders.

‘Go on, Betty. Go on,’ he heard her shout. As the cows began to move outside, Hugh hopped down from the tractor and strode into the shed. He grabbed the rubber hose and began to spray into the corners of the byres, stepping through the dung and straw river as it flowed towards the centre of the shed. Millie turned in the yard, gave him… well, the most wonderful smile. She looked so delicate, swamped in that coat and, with the quickness of a boy, she bounded towards him, grabbed hold of a broom and started pushing the river along, out through the door and over the edge of the concrete, turning the snow an ochre yellow.

In the dairy he heard Brigsie clanking the lids onto the top of the churns and thumping them down with her fist.

‘Better fetch the trailer,’ he said and Millie paused, leant her elbow on the handle of the broom and nodded, her face a pale triangle under the skeins of dark hair escaping from her headscarf.

The Fordson was still guggling away at the top of the yard. He crunched it into gear and backed the trailer up to the door. Brigsie, legs apart to steady herself, was rocking the first churn backwards and forwards, dragging it across the floor in the direction of the door. Millie hauled away at the second. She may be half the size of Brigsie but she was strong, tough. He jumped down, heaving the final one past them. Standing on the trailer platform he tugged the churns up, his head raised with the effort, then hopped down, barely out of breath, wiping his hands on a piece of cloth.

‘Didn’t need to cool it this morning,’ he said.

‘Be lucky if they collect it before it freezes.’

‘Can you spare a cup of tea, Millie?’

‘Of course. Brigsie?’

‘No. I’m all right. I’ll start on the litter,’ Brigsie said.

‘She’s a hard worker,’ Hugh said when they got inside, ‘We’re lucky to have her.’ He stripped off his coat and threw it over the back of a kitchen chair. ‘So, how are you getting on? Were you all right last night? A plane came down over Norrington.’

‘I heard.’

‘I thought about you.’

‘I was fine.’

The kettle began to crack and pop as the water heated.

‘I think about you a lot,’ he said.

Millie, who was watching the kettle with her back to him, rolled her eyes. She wished he wouldn’t do that. She was always pleased to see him, genuinely liked having him around but ever since Adam died, he was like a dog starved of affection. She knew if she patted him, he’d be all over her. She turned and leaned against the towel bar along the edge of the chipped range. He was sitting forward on the chair, his elbows resting on his knees, his hands linked beneath his chin, looking up at her. Compared to the service men, his hair was long, dark as a gypsy’s, messed up from where he’d pulled off his hat.

‘You mustn’t worry about me,’ she said.

He laughed lightly and sat back in his chair.

‘Did you hear? Bristol got it again last night,’ he said.

‘I thought I heard the bombers coming over.’

‘Coventry, Southampton, Bristol – when will it ever stop?’

‘When Britain surrenders?’

‘Then it’ll never stop,’ Hugh looked up at her. His eyes were so deep-set, the pupils so dark, they seemed all of a piece with his eyebrows when he frowned hard.

‘Do you think we’re in danger here?’ she said.

‘Coltenham maybe. They might target the munitions factory but we’re pretty safe up here.’

‘What about the plane that came down?’

‘It wasn’t a bomber; it was a fighter. I suppose it went off course. It was flying low and the gunners at Shawstoke hit it.’

‘Take me over to Norrington today. I’d like to see the wreckage.’

Hugh looked at her and she saw his expression change.

‘I most certainly will not. Women shouldn’t see things like that.’

‘Really, Hugh?’

‘It’s not just a plane, Millie. It’s a man.’

‘Brigsie said there wasn’t a body.’

‘Not as such.’

‘Meaning?’

Hugh got to his feet, his movement sudden and impatient. ‘For goodness sake, Millie. What’s got into you?’ She stared at him, knew he would blunder on. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘The front half of the plane was blown to smithereens and that wretched pilot would have gone the same way. What are you hoping to see? A hand hanging in a tree? A foot under a hedge.’

‘I suppose,’ she said, ‘I’d quite like to see the body of a man who’d been killed in action.’

‘Why?’

Millie gave a laugh.

‘It would make a change.’

‘Oh, stop it, Millie,’ and Hugh paced away from her, picked up his coat, paused and flung it back down. He swung round and said,

‘You need to put it behind you, move on.’

How many times had she heard that bloody mantra during the past six months? She wanted to mock him for his lack of imagination but she felt an infuriating stinging behind her eyes, saw the room distort as tears oozed into her eyes. ‘Oh no – come on, don’t cry,’ he said, irritated or maybe embarrassed. He stepped towards her, jerking her against his chest, the wool of his jumper prickling her cheek.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said, her voice muffled against his jumper, ‘I didn’t mean to bait you.’ She pushed away from him.

He reached behind her and pulled a dishcloth off the rail, offering it to her as a handkerchief. ‘Don’t blow your nose on it,’ he said; his little joke, but Millie wasn’t ready for that yet.

‘I’m too angry to move on, Hugh. I can’t forgive him.’

‘Yes, yes,’ Hugh said. ‘That’s enough of all that.’ He moved a strand of hair from across her forehead and tried to poke it back underneath her headscarf, his fingertip rough, then he glanced towards the window – Looking for escape, she thought.

‘You’ve had a stinking run of bad luck,’ he said. ‘It’s enough to knock the stuffing out of anyone but it’s best not to dwell.’


Angel Derby by Mary Ann Kurtz

There was an Angel and the Devil, in the muddy baptismal water, holding hands – Anon

                                                                               Running

                                                                                     1

Black Tupelo, Tennessee 1939

The stone step was smooth and cool under her legs as she waited for something to take her away. She was singing a little song to herself. A song that the bigger girls at school sang when they jumped rope. She wasn’t allowed a jump rope so she sat on the step and sang softly to herself.

Hush, hush, hush, here come the bogeyman. Hush, hush, hush.

She closed one eye and then the other, making the trees by the river jump back and forth. She fluttered her eyelashes, making the whole world dance. She shook her head from side to side, faster and faster, her hair slapping her cheeks until it almost hurt. With a stick she drew around her shoes in the dirt, spat on her finger and rubbed hard at a scuff on the toe. She put them on the wrong feet, as if she didn’t know better. Wearing her shoes like that felt good.

‘Ardis.’

At the sound of her father’s voice she stopped singing and looked down at her shoes. They were shiny black leather and two sizes too big, her prized possession. Aunt Sissy found them in a cardboard box at The Salvation Army store. ‘A rose among the thorns,’ she’d said, holding out the shoes. Ardis didn’t know what Aunt Sissy meant by that but those shoes were the prettiest things she’d ever seen.

Her father’s tall figure cast a shadow across her lap, blocking the sun. He was a lean sinewy man with a gaunt face and sparse brown hair. His hands were rough and hung stiffly at his sides. She sat very still hoping he was just stopping on his way to somewhere else. That in a second or two he would move away and give her back the warmth and light. She closed her eyes and prayed hard to the God of Pretty Things that he would never mind about her shoes.

‘What have I told ya, Ardis?’

A heartbeat. ‘What’s that Pa?’

‘Pride and covetousness are Satan’s doing.’

Another beat. ‘What do ya mean?’

‘Sweet Jesus won’t have ya loving those shoes.’

Her heart was galloping now. ‘These are such pretty shoes Pa. Don’t Sweet Baby Cheeses like pretty things?’

She squinted up at him, into the sun, as he started in on his words. Words that meant something was going to happen. Something from Pa’s Book of Truth, that heavy thing he carried around inside his head. His voice was even, like slow sinking sand. She listened out for sounds of salvation, wanting to be ready for what was coming. In her mind, she wore her thin white gown and stood at the edge of the pit waiting for him to wash her sins away. It’s cold out, she thought. The pit might be frozen over and she’d be walking on water like Jesus. There’d be men boring holes in the ice and dropping in their fishing lines. Pa might bore a hole and drop her in. She didn’t want to get lost under that ice, afraid the water would take something from her. A leg or arm. Some part of her that she might need later on.

She heard the word ‘deliverance’ and decided to run. This was a time before she knew that running from Pa was not a good thing to do. She was fast, the good Lord made her that way, but her shoes were on the wrong feet and Pa was faster. He caught up and threw her high into the air. Sun filled her eyes. The world tipped dizzily around her. In that instant she had wings and was flying. She laughed and scrunched her toes with all her might not wanting to lose her shoes. For those few seconds, it was a game. That was all. She sensed a kind of possibility and closed her eyes almost in shock or pain that she felt so free. Then she landed hard on his shoulder and realized it wasn’t a game at all.

The gravel path to the house was tangled with roots and he stumbled. His hold on her loosened and she slid from his shoulder into a long slow free fall, landing on the ground in a crumpled heap. The pain in her head was sharp. Her knees gleamed with scraps of flesh, blood and stone. She blinked, but wouldn’t cry. One eye didn’t work like it should so she shut both and pretended to be asleep. Hoping he would leave her alone. The crunch of gravel under her father’s boots made her open her eyes and she saw him reach down for her shoes.

She was mad because he wasn’t what she’d been waiting for. It wasn’t Pa who would take her away. More than that she was mad at Sweet Baby Cheeses for not wanting her to have those shoes.

                                                                                    2

It was the next Sunday and with a sharp wind in her face, she trailed behind Harlan to church. Winter was coming shortly and she wore an old wool coat over her thin checked dress. The coat was done up with the one remaining button, tangles of dark thread hung where the others used to be. Every so often, she stopped to tie her boots or look for her handkerchief to blow her nose or say it was slippery so she had to go slow else she’d fall.

‘What’s wrong with ya?’ Harlan’s face got uglier each time he turned around to hurry her along.

Seeing Aunt Sissy and not having her shoes, she thought. That’s what was wrong. She said nothing and walked the rest of the way without stopping because she didn’t want to see that ugly face again.

At the church, Aunt Sissy and Russell were standing where Ardis feared they would be. Right under the Church of Believers – Miracles Every Service sign waiting until the last person was inside. ‘Last in, first out,’ Aunt Sissy always said.

‘Why ain’t ya wearing your new shoes?’ Aunt Sissy was smiling and seemed happy about Ardis having those shoes.

Ardis’s heart thumped noisily in her chest. Her mouth was a little dry. ‘They’re gone Aunt Sissy.’

It was the truth. Just with the bad part left out. Pa was standing next to her. She smelled the pine tar soap on his hands and crossed her fingers behind her back.

‘What do ya mean, gone?’ Aunt Sissy’s smile began to fade.

The backs of Ardis’s knees started to sweat. The insides of her elbows itched. She didn’t scratch because she’d have to uncross her fingers. She didn’t want to say too much. Her voice wasn’t strong.

‘Them shoes were too big. They fell off,’ she said quietly and looked down at the ground.

‘Did ya stuff the toes with newspaper like I told ya?’

‘Yeah.’

‘And they still fell off?’ Aunt Sissy’s voice was getting louder.

‘Yeah.’

Aunt Sissy looked up at Harlan and back at her. Ardis was sweating and itching all over now.

‘Did somebody take your shoes?’

Ardis never told a lie before. Pa didn’t allow it. Lying was for sinners. She remembered once when Russell got caught telling a lie. Aunt Sissy beat him with a belt. Afterward he’d told Ardis something she never thought she’d need to know.

‘When you’re telling a porker, don’t go looking all over the place. Look ‘em straight in the eye or they’ll know you’re lying.’

Ardis didn’t want the belt and she didn’t want the pit. She looked at Sissy, straight in the eyes, and nodded her head. ‘No,’ she said.

‘Does he know where they are?’ Aunt Sissy never spoke directly to Harlan and always called him ‘he’.

Ardis shrugged and looked away. ‘Don’t know.’

That was another lie. She figured Aunt Sissy knew it because there was no trace of a smile left. Aunt Sissy was looking at Harlan. He was looking back at her. The corners of his mouth turned up into the smallest smile. Seeing Pa smile sent a shiver running through her. Aunt Sissy must have been finished asking about the shoes because she hawked and spat a greenish gob on the ground. Her aim was good. It landed right next to Harlan’s foot. He didn’t even flinch.

 

The next day after school she walked home slowly, dragging her feet in the dirt. She had an empty feeling in her chest, an ache. Like being hungry and knowing there was nothing to eat. The school bus had left without her and she was five so getting home took a long time.

It was a lonely walk down a long stretch of the road. The only house was surrounded by knee-high weeds and a tall metal fence. A dog growled as she passed, making her heart beat a little faster. She wrapped her arms around her lunch box and rested her chin against the cool metal, pretending not to be afraid. The dog barked and crashed through the weeds, throwing itself against the fence. Ropes of drool swung from its fangs. Standing on its hind legs, that dog was the biggest thing she’d ever seen. Even bigger than the bogeyman. She screamed and ran.

Her knapsack slid down her back, the books inside bounced hard from hip to hip. Her lunchbox sprang open, spilling out wrappers and leftover crusts of bread. She didn’t stop or turn around until that dog was a long way back, not even for the half-eaten Hostess Twinkie she’d traded for at school. When she got to the end of the road, her heart was pounding and she felt a sudden urge. She hiked up her dress and squatted in the dirt, watching the stream of pale yellow liquid soak into the ground.

Running from that dog made her feel small and want to cry. Nobody was around and she was glad, not wanting folks to see her scared. She thought about resting for a minute and lay down by roadside. Clouds moved slowly across the sky. An eagle circled way overhead. I want to be there, she thought. Floating around like that bird. Way up where nothing can get at me. Not that dog or Pa or anyone. After a while of looking at the sky and not thinking about much at all, she didn’t feel so small anymore and walked on.

She cut through the woods and saw Aunt Sissy in a clearing, pulling up plants and putting them in her basket. She stood and watched for a while. Aunt Sissy could cure almost anything with the potions she concocted using those plants. ‘Can cure anything but heartache’ is what she always said. Ardis wondered if there was something in that basket to ease the ache in her chest. But since it was an ache that came from lying about her shoes she didn’t ask.

Aunt Sissy turned. ‘Strange child,’ she said, putting her hand on her heart as if something was going to fall out. ‘Ya can’t just stand and stare at a person like that. Scared me half to death.’

‘Russell got pains?’ Ardis said.

‘No, he’s fine.’

‘Then what’s all that in the basket for?’

‘Making something special.’ Aunt Sissy had gone back to looking around and picked up a bunch of tangled brown weed. ‘This’ll do just fine.’

There weren’t any fiddle-leaf figs or red clover or even a dandelion in her basket. Just a bunch of twigs, some moss and a withered apple that looked like a shrunken head.

‘Ya making voodoo?’

Aunt Sissy laughed. ‘What do ya know about voodoo?’

‘Some kids at school make little dolls out of twigs then stick ‘em with pins. Supposed to bring somebody bad luck.’

Aunt Sissy looked like she was thinking for a while then said, ‘well I guess that’s what I’m doing. Making my own special voodoo.’

 

Sunday came and the weather had finally turned. It was cold with dark clouds low in the sky, threatening rain. Harlan was taking longer strides than usual and she had to hurry. Her socks slipped inside her boots but she didn’t stop to pull them up. She couldn’t make Pa wait. He believed in sitting right up front, as an example for the congregation to behold, and that meant getting there early so nobody took his seat. Aunt Sissy said that sitting up front was just bragging to the Lord. Like saying ‘lookie here God, it’s me.’ She always sat at the back because sometimes she fell asleep and didn’t want the Reverend shoving any God fearing stuff down her throat on the sly.

Ardis didn’t like bragging or sitting up front either. Sometimes she dared herself to look around to see if Aunt Sissy was asleep. More often than not she’d be wide-awake, sucking a Brach’s peppermint with the noise of a deaf woman and looking at the door.

They got to church as the rain came down. It was loud, like a sacrament. Must be the same sound that Noah heard, Ardis thought. Everyone was crowding inside. Taking off coats and hats. Funnelling down the center aisle, every pew filling fast. The women wore starchy dresses and shoes that pinched their feet. The men had combed their hair, wore suspenders and ties, the dark smoke of barbeque and whiskey from the night before came off their skin.

Two ladies who were taking their time deciding where to sit blocked the aisle. Harlan was trying to push past. Ardis didn’t mind because her socks had slipped all the way down into her boots and she was busy pulling them up.

‘Lordy,’ she heard one of the ladies say to the other. ‘Look who’s sitting in the front row today.’

Harlan stopped. Ardis banged into his legs.

‘My, my and what’s she got on her head?’ the other woman said.

Ardis stretched up on her toes and craned her neck, trying to follow Harlan’s gaze, but she couldn’t see past all the backsides and trouser legs.

‘I’d say it’s a hat.’

‘Well she is sure gonna catch the Lord’s eye with that one.’

The women slid into a pew and Ardis could finally see the front row. Not able to stop herself, she gasped. Aunt Sissy was sitting in Pa’s place and she was wearing half the forest on her head. It was a hat made from what she’d collected in the woods and it spread out so wide there was only enough space for Russell at one end, a few old ladies at the other. Her own special voodoo.

Harlan pushed her into the second row where the only empty seats were right behind Aunt Sissy. Ardis knew he that begin there would make him mad and sat very still. No matter how much he twisted and turned, the only thing he’d see was that hat. To her it was an enchanted forest with gnarled sycamore twigs, like bleached bones, draped with moss and red berries, withered apples stuck with pine needles, the stink of black cherry bark. For a while she was a woodlouse crawling through the Sumac and brown curled leaves tied on with string. Tiny paper birds attached by wire bobbed over a nest still lined with downy feathers and bits of brown speckled shell. She pinched a sprig of blue cedar dangling from the brim and held it to her nose. It smelled like her bedroom closet where she sometimes slept.

‘Whore’s hat,’ she heard Harlan say.

Ardis knew Pa was wrong about that. She’d read about whores in the Bible and Russell had told her a lot more.

‘Whore’s don’t wear hats, Pa,’ she said, sitting a little straighter with the importance of what she knew. ‘Russell says whores don’t wear much of anything. Not even underpants.’

Rain slammed against the tin church roof, making a sound so loud that the preacher was shouting to the congregation. Ardis couldn’t make out what Pa said back to her. Something about a ‘rod’ and ‘back’ but she wasn’t sure. She was on the edge of her seat, swinging her legs back and forth, looking at Aunt Sissy’s hat and feeling glad she wasn’t a whore. Especially with it being so cold outside.

All through the sermon Aunt Sissy waved her arms in the air and her words were fast and jumbled, as if she was speaking in tongues. A chorus of ‘whooooaaaa’ rose from the congregation when she bowed her head and started to topple forward, hat first. She steadied herself with a hand on Russell’s shoulder, shouting ‘amen’ and ‘halleluiah Brother, halleluiah Sister’ and sang way too loud for somebody who didn’t know the words. Bits of moss, twigs and leaves went everywhere. The two little birds broke free and landed in Harlan’s lap. Ardis looked up at his flushed face, the blue vein pulsing in his neck. Everybody along the pew was smiling. Except Pa. He brushed the birds to the floor and without looking, crushed them under the heel of his boot.

‘Think I’ll wear this hat more often,’ Aunt Sissy said to the preacher after the service was over and he’d come by to shake everyone’s hand. ‘Folks seem to like it.’

The preacher wasn’t smiling but she didn’t seem to notice. When he’d walked on, Aunt Sissy swivelled around in her seat, the hat just missing Russell who was busy picking twigs from his hair and looking like he wanted out of there.

‘Maybe when ya turn six,’ she said to Ardis. ‘I’ll get ya another pair of those shoes.’

Ardis nodded her head just enough so Pa didn’t see, in case he said she wouldn’t be getting another birthday. Aunt Sissy turned and spoke to Harlan. Something she never did.

‘Mark my words, Harlan Granger,’ she said, without a smile or any particular look on her face. ‘I’m gonna bury ya in this hat.


Four Degrees by Julie Carrick Dalton

CHAPTER ONE

2016

Sadie pried a strip of bark off the dying pine tree. Her fingers, blistered and raw from hunting the elusive pine beetle, froze as a gush of insects writhed against the exposed wood. The beetles scattered for cover, but not fast enough.

“Got you.” Her voice, scratchy and dry from not having spoken in days, echoed off the granite boulders in the sparse forest. She scraped the insects into a small envelope and tilted her head up to the morning sun.

When she got home she would storm her research director’s office, dump bags of dead beetles on her desk and her lap, and nail poisoned wood samples to the wall. No one who looked at her evidence would be able to deny the insects had migrated from the Rockies to New England. ‘I told you so’ burned sweet on her tongue.

Sadie shook the envelope to the rhythm of a song she couldn’t quite remember. The spirited rustle, like seeds anxious to be planted, emboldened her, even as her body ached under the fifty-pound backpack. She trudged beyond the tree line. Only fifty meters to Mount Howell’s summit.

Smoke scratched the back of her throat, confirming the late summer wind was already pushing the forest fires east. She paused for a sip of water. Working alone in the woods, Sadie marked time in elevation and ounces of water. She was running out of both.

This drought. This spate of fires. This beetle. With a four-degree increase in summer temperatures over last half century, New Hampshire had practically invited the insidious invader and the fires that came with it. Sadie could slow the wildfires if someone would just believe her. The anticipation of being right, of being the hero, had lulled her to sleep the past several nights under the canopy of stars. Cocooned in her sleeping bag, she’d written the opening to her imagined Ted Talk. When someone says you’re overreacting, but you know you’re right, keep reacting until it’s over.

She dialed Thea, her research director.

“It’s the pine beetles. Just like I thought.” Sadie’s breath grew heavy as she stutter-stepped on the gravelly incline. “They’re killing off the pines, and with this drought, it’s all going to burn.”

“The fire’s shifting. You need to come down.”

“Wait till you see my samples.”

“Sadie, listen—”

“If we thin the infested trees, we can get ahead of the fires.”

“We lost the grant.”

Silence as deep as her dying forest surrounded Sadie.

“I’ve got proof now. It’s just like California and Colorado. You want me to pretend nothing’s happening just because I don’t have grant money?”

“Write a paper. You’ll find more funding.”

“By then the whole state will be on fire.”

“They took you seriously enough to start digging firebreaks. You did that. Be happy.”

“But the beetles.”

“Show me the samples tomorrow.” Sadie heard Thea’s fingernails cantering against her desk. “Or I’m done defending your research.”

“I need more time,” Sadie said, but Thea had already hung up.

Sadie’s backpack grew heavier, compressing her knees and spine, as if she might crumble into the rock under her feet. She had hoped the summer fellowship would morph into a full-time forestry position so she could escape teaching college students who only wanted an easy science credit. They wouldn’t care about her beetles either.

 She forced herself up the final incline. If gravity pulled from the dense fist at the center the Earth, then the higher she pushed herself up the mountain, the farther she removed herself from the core, the looser gravity’s grip would be. It tugged at her heels and stole the oxygen from her lungs. Only on the summits did Sadie feel a lightness in her chest. She stood untethered in the rushing wind. Anything seemed possible from the top of a mountain.

Sadie dropped her pack to the ground. A gust whipped her hair across her face, carrying traces of pine and the reedy flute of a distant hermit thrush. Wind stretched the clouds below her like raw cotton on a comb, allowing the rusty tips of dead pine trees to peek through. She pulled samples of tree bark and pine wedges from her backpack and laid them around her in a semi-circle. The invasive beetle she had been hunting the last four days had carved lacy lines into the wood. The pea-sized creatures were killing off trees and leaving them as kindling in the parched woodlands. She stroked the delicate destruction with her finger. The wood was stained with the mountain pine beetles’ telltale blue fungus—the color of Civil War soldiers and the autumn sky before sunset. That color meant death to a forest. She held a wedge to her face and inhaled the freshly cut wood. The tang of sap should have rushed in. But dead trees don’t bleed. They burn.

Smoke blurred the edge of the mountaintops to the west. Mount Griffin rose from the mist, green on the north slope and charred on the south. When she finally convinced crews to start thinning the beetle-infested pines, she would salvage a few trunks to mill into floorboards for her home. If she ever stayed still long enough to own a home. The grooves the beetles carved would feel better under bare feet than the slick linoleum in her one-bedroom apartment.

From the mountain top, home felt distant, as if it might not be there when she came down. Time moved more slowly in the woods, sliding by like the lazy flow of pine sap. As a child, she used to imagine the outside world slipping away as she leapt from rock to rock through the ferny woods surrounding her home. The pine and beech trees had been her friends. They had guarded her, swallowed her secrets whole.

It was her turn to protect the forest.

Silence enveloped the summit, an island of stone floating in the low-hanging clouds. If only time would stop. Right here. Right now. The beetles would pause their insatiable attack, the fires would stall, her grant would freeze in place, and Sadie would remain at the top of the world, where she could hide from gravity.

She didn’t like the gnawing whisper inside her, taunting her that the fires presented an opportunity. If they proved to be a bigger threat than expected, and if Sadie’s research stopped an inferno, it would transform her career, her future. She did not want to want that fire, but a small voice inside called out to the flames. Come if you dare.

Sadie selected a potato-sized stone from the ledge and dusted it against her thigh. She pressed her tongue to the rock, leaving a wet oval to reveal its hidden mineral life. The dull grays and browns of New Hampshire granite burst into streaks of silver and layers of radiant amber at the touch of her saliva. A creamy, jagged vein glowed in the sunlight. The oval shrank as wind sucked the light from the rock until it reverted to its flat finish. The iridescence of veiled colors fizzed on her tongue. Her mouth watered.

She tucked the stone in the bottom of her backpack, cradling it in the center of the tambourine she carried to scare off bears. When she built her own house someday, the rocks she’d collected would form the skirt around her hearth. Pieces of every hike, markers of time. The stack of stones—at least thirty by now—formed a cairn in her apartment. She often wondered if the dilapidated building could bear the weight, or if one day it would all come crashing down.

Her cell phone buzzed against the granite slab as a text came through.

It’s Daniela. They found him.

The minerals on her tongue turned to acid. She read and reread the words until they became a jumble of illegible letters, and the screen powered down. She hurled a rock off the ledge and held her breath until it struck the slope below, unleashing a torrent of cascading stone. This couldn’t be happening.

I’m home. I need you here, Daniela texted again. They’re questioning my dad.

Sadie imagined the text message in Daniela’s childhood voice and didn’t restrain the sob that burst out with decades of compressed guilt. More than twenty-five years had passed since she had spoken to Daniela Garcia. If she acknowledged Daniela, Sadie would no longer be able to pretend that long-ago summer had never happened. The fiction of Sadie’s childhood, rewritten and edited so she could sleep at night, would come undone. The single gunshot echoed in her mind.

Or she could stay on her mountaintop and turn off her phone. She put her head between her knees and stared down at the fissures in the slab. She scratched a rock on the surface of the ledge, leaving white letters next to her wood samples. Sadie was here. It felt childish, but she traced over the letters until they stood out in bold blocks. Sadie was here.

Horizontal lines in the granite recorded time, a hundred thousand years between each striation. Climbing her mountains meant traveling through time, treading on scars of each millennia. Unknowable catastrophic events had bent and broken the stone. Sedimentary lines collided at violent angles, as if time had folded in on itself. Moments that were never meant to touch, fused together in geological history.

She imagined the panic in Daniela’s dark eyes. As much as Sadie wanted to hide in the woods, the ferocity of the bond Sadie once shared with Daniela swelled in her chest, shaming her for wanting to abandon her friend again, as she had done so many years ago.

Her thumbs felt thick and clumsy as she typed a response.

On my way to the cottage. Meet me at 9 tonight? The tacky layer of sap, which felt like part of her skin after four days of climbing trees, stuck to the screen as she typed. She added three rocks to a cairn someone else had built. An offering. A prayer. The chilled morning air telegraphed the metallic peal of mineral against mineral, broadcasting her location into the valley.

Daniela—like the forest—had been her ally, her friend, a keeper of her secrets. Sadie had played everything like a grand adventure back then. Until the game became real. Maybe she had always hoped the truth would rise one day. Or maybe she had convinced herself that the deeper she hid in the woods, the more gently she walked this Earth, the more likely their secret would stay where they left it—where they left him. Buried in the woods.

CHAPTER TWO

1989

The warped floorboards in the kitchen played like a piano under Sadie’s feet. If she maintained her rhythm and bounced from the long board in front of the sink to the short plank behind her father’s chair to the narrow strip in the middle of the room, she could coax the melody of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star out of the moaning, creaking wood.

Standing at the threshold between the kitchen and the hallway, Sadie mapped her route across the kitchen, seeking out the stiff, mute boards that promised silent passage to the door on the other side of the room. Thin light filtered through the muslin curtains at a familiar angle. Six thirty a.m.

Sadie often stole mornings while her parents slept to practice in case she ever needed to escape from something. What she would need to escape from, she did not know yet. Notice your surroundings. Know your escape route. Like Sherlock Holmes. With six leaps, she landed in front of the screen door and eased it open enough to squeeze her torso through. If she opened it one inch too far, the squeak would alert her parents.

Outside, a frothy mist hung over the lake. She tiptoed out to the end of the rickety pier and sat, letting her feet dip into the tepid water. At first Sadie didn’t notice the boat, half obscured by the fog. But as it crept closer, the small vessel broke through the gauzy curtain. A yellow rowboat, drifting alone with no captain, no passengers. She stood up to see inside. Maybe someone lay on the bottom. A lost child. Maybe a murderer ready to jump out and grab her. Pressing up on her toes, stretching as far as she dared over the water, she still couldn’t see inside.

The boat floated closer, closer, then passed by her pier on the barely noticeable current without pause.

The morning sun infused the mist with a creamy, molten glow. Pressure swelled inside Sadie’s rib cage. A longing rippled through her muscles and clung to her bones, pulling her toward the boat as if the universe needed her to act. If she hesitated, if she went inside to ask permission, it would be gone. Disappeared into the clouds, like a dream she would never remember. She peeled off her pajama top and shorts and looked back at the house. Her toes curled around the edge of the warped, gray boards, clinging to the rules she always obeyed.

She filled her chest with the misty air, pinched her nose, and jumped.

The lake water caught her as it had a thousand times before, but its embrace felt foreign at this early hour. Her limbs felt dense and stiff as she chopped through the water, trying not to sink too deep, where the water grew cold. From eye level the billowy vapor distorted her depth perception and she lost perspective of where she drifted, where the boat hid. Or the shore. She kept paddling forward. It had to be there. She tried to whistle a low tone to echo off the boat, but humid air absorbed the sound as it escaped her lips.

Finally, her outstretched hand swept the cold aluminum side of the boat.

“Hello?” she whispered and rapped on the side. Fog muffled the hollow echo of her knuckles on the hull. She pushed the front of the boat and kicked with all her strength. The abandoned craft resisted, but as Sadie fought, the boat slowed, then grudgingly reversed direction. Her labored breath echoed off of the boat with a hush. As she entered the shallows in front of her secluded beach, she lodged the wayward craft in the sand and stood up.

Two oars lay next to a rope coiled on the bottom. Plenty of dings, but no holes. A perfect vessel. As if it had drifted to her, for her. Someone meant for her to find this boat. She would explore the whole lake on her own, discover a place no one knew existed.

Sadie surveyed her house, and, seeing no sign of her parents, she dragged the boat fifty yards around the shoreline and tied it to the drooping birch branches behind the rocks where she used to play pirates.

Sadie ducked as a ribbon of starlings curled above her head, their wings murmuring secrets she couldn’t understand. She used to love watching starlings’ complicated choreography until she read that they were an invasive species that pecked holes in swallows’ eggs to kill the babies. The arc of iridescent green-black wings swooped toward the water where Sadie stood, wet and naked. She hugged her arms around her waist and hurried through the shallows to get her pajamas from the pier.

Sadie’s knees shook as she eased the screen door shut behind her. She snuck back over the creaky kitchen floor, the nighttime chill still held firmly in the peg nails securing the warped planks. She pressed her back against her door. Water dripped off the ends of her red ringlets, forming tiny puddles near her feet.

Sadie slipped into the shower to hide her morning swim. She wanted to keep the boat. But even if no one claimed it, her parents would never let her take it out alone. She would be too scared. She imagined her boat with no captain and slammed the shower door.

The smell of coffee greeted her as she reentered the kitchen. Her mother blotted a tangle of bacon with a paper towel and offered the plate to Sadie. The salty, chewy bacon exploded in her mouth, filling her nostrils with the bold smell of hickory.

Through the window she spied a glint of gold peeking between the rocks where swaying branches left a sliver of the bow exposed. It glowed, singing a come-hither song only she heard. She squeezed her knees together and prayed her parents wouldn’t notice the blaze of anxious yellow.

She would take her boat out. No one would ever know.


The Fate of a Golden Boy by Susan Hurley

The New York Times

FOREIGN DESK

Mother and son reach safety.

By Milton Krum

15 August 1979

HONG KONG. Dung is a six-year-old Vietnamese boy whose emaciated condition brings tears to the eyes of his doctor at the Jubilee Refugee Camp’s hospital. His skeleton is conspicuous; his skin is ulcer-ravaged, exposing bone at his wrists. He weighs only thirty-two pounds.

Dung and his mother Mai were found staggering through the streets of downtown Hong Kong six days ago, their clothes filthy and tattered. When they were brought to the hospital Mai was delirious, but a male inmate of the camp recognized the pair and has been assisting the police interviewing her.

Authorities believe Mai and Dung escaped from the southern Vietnamese province of Ca Mau in a small boat. Fishermen rescued the pair at sea near Hong Kong and dropped them on shore under cover of darkness. It is illegal for citizens of Hong Kong to help refugees in this way.

Ivan Hadley, the American heading up the United Nations High Commission for Refugees’ Support Services in Hong Kong is astonished that Mai and Dung survived the journey. ‘It must be close to one thousand kilometres from Ca Mau to Hong Kong,’ he said. ‘And this woman had to row most of it after Thai pirates stole her boat’s engine and fuel.’

Over 60,000 Vietnamese refugees are now housed in Hong Kong’s detention centers, and boats packed with more escapees from the Communist government arrive each week. Hadley says each vessel brings another harrowing tale of hardship en route.

As well as pirates, who also stole the pair’s water and rice supplies, Mai and Dung had to contend with a severe storm. July is typhoon season in the South China Sea and waves over thirty feet high are common. Mai says she bound her son and herself to the mast to avoid being washed overboard.

The only word young Dung has spoken since being rescued is ‘Ma’.

END

 

                                                                                Rosa

Golden Boy, that’s what we called him: not to his face, but not in a mean way either. He was my boss. I worked for him at the biotech start-up that was developing the drug he invented. Golden Boy was brilliant—seemingly effortlessly so—universally acknowledged as an all-round good guy, and already a star of the medical research world when he died at the ridiculously young age of thirty-three.

His name was Dung, but I only learnt that at his funeral. While he was alive I never heard a soul call him by that name, the name his mother—or perhaps his father; someone who loved him anyway—bestowed. Dung. I hadn’t expected to cry at his funeral, but that realisation undid me.

Golden Boy. Dung. I still think of him every day, even now, ten years after ‘the incident’, which is what people call what he did, how he died. Because, in a sense, what I did killed him.

 

                                                                               Part 1

                                                              Melbourne, Australia

                                                                                 2006

I’ve tried to make my mother proud. Ăn quả nhớ kẻ trồng cây, she would say. When eating the fruit, think of the person who planted the tree. I’ve tried to do that, and more. I’ve tried to live honourably, to treat people well, even when they’ve treated me badly. I’ve tried to be different from my father, to look after the women in my life, like he didn’t. Especially you, little sister, I’ve tried to look after you. I’ve been trying to atone for what I did, without even knowing what it was. But all the time I’ve been walking Spanish.

 

                                                                            Ly (Natalie)

It started when he went on TV with Charlie Cunningham. I saw them, on the news. It was a Saturday, a Saturday in May, and my salon was the only business in the lane still open when the news came on. I normally shut at six, but my last client had come late. I was sweeping the floor and Trà My was putting clippers in the steriliser when Wendy arrived, almost thirty minutes late. Wendy did not care that we were packing up. ‘I need a full pedi,’ she said, ‘and a manicure too, darl.’ She had only booked a toenail file and paint, but no problem. Business is business.

So Trà My started applying remover to the chipped polish on Wendy’s finger nails. Wendy wouldn’t try shellac, even though I had told her, many times too, that it would last longer than the Big Apple Red polish she always went with. Shellac would be good value, worth the extra money, but Wendy is cheap.  I was on feet, even though I am the boss of Trà My. Trà My says smelly feet make her want to puke. I was sitting on the stool in front of the footbath checking Wendy’s feet, which are always in a bad way because she squeezes them into pointy, too-tight stilettos, when Wendy said, ‘Let’s catch the news.’

The Trouble with Mr Bean was playing on my new TV, a fifty-inch flat-screen that I got on a plan. I didn’t have to make the first payment until January.  I hadn’t told my brother about the TV. I suppose I should have. He was my partner in the salon. But Dung would have said it was silly to spend money on a fancy TV. He would have been mad about the payment plan too.

Dung had given me the Mr Bean box set. The Trouble with Mr Bean is my favourite episode. Even though I’ve seen it many times I still laugh out loud when Mr Bean chucks a cupcake full of wasps into a car where a thief who has just tried to steal Mr Bean’s car is sitting. The thief squirms like a worm, but can’t escape the wasp.

Trà My switched the TV over to the news like Wendy wanted, I didn’t care. I couldn’t see the screen. I was on feet and my new TV was on the wall behind me.

I wasn’t even listening to the news when Dung came on. I was hungry. I was thinking about the canh chua Má would have waiting for me when I got home. On Saturday it is always canh chua.

Trà My saw him first. ‘Ly,’ she shouted, ‘Nhìn kìa!

I looked up. Pissed. I had told her many times: ‘Call me Natalie in front of clients, not Ly, and speak English.’ Speak Vietnamese, then clients want the Hanoi price, or the Phuket price, or the Bali price. Wherever they just went on holiday, they want the same price in my salon. I give good prices, good Aussie prices. Not Ho Chi Minh prices. No way. So speak English.

Anh của Ly trên TV kìa,’ Trà My said, pointing. I turned to look. And Trà My was right. There was Dung, on TV, on the news. That was how it started.

I picked up Wendy’s right foot and put it in the footbath, then the left foot with the bulging bunion. ‘Soak for five minutes Wendy,’ I said. I stood up to see Dung better.

It looked like he was at the hospital. He had a white coat on and the thing he used to listen to patients’ hearts slung around his neck. He was talking to an old lady who was lying in bed. Sick, I suppose, but she looked okay. What was going on? Dung did not look after sick people any more. Now he did experiments, research, to find new medicine.

Wendy sighed loudly. ‘I am in a bit of a hurry,’ she said.

My brother often gave me advice ‘Call your clients by their name. Aussies like to hear their name,’ he said when I opened my salon. He was making a joke, but still I try to follow his advice. I make jokes too. Jokes to myself. Jokes to remember the names of clients. Sourpuss Samantha. Moustache Michelle. Wino Wendy. It works, to do that.

Wendy had smelt of wine when she arrived at my salon. She must have had time for drinks with friends. Then she decided she needed a manicure and a pedicure. Now, she was in a bit of a hurry. Well, too bad for Wendy. ‘Your callouses are hard. You must soak,’ I told her. The water in the footbath was warm and bubbly. Wendy could relax. Enjoy!

But Trà My said, ‘No problem Lady, we quick.’

Lady! Trà My is such a peasant. I only hired her because her mum Kim got Má when we arrived here. Cleaning the houses of Aussies was the job. Má had told me that now it was our family’s obligation to do Kim the favour. What Má meant was that it was my obligation. And it is not just the family of Kim I had to help. I had to return all the favours that were done for Má. Otherwise she would feel shame.

On TV, Dung was somewhere else now, where he worked I suppose: ‘the lab’ he called it. He had taken off his white coat. He and an Aussie man—young like Dung, but fat—were sitting on stools in front of a bench. At the bottom of the screen were their names: Charlie Cunningham and David Tran.

Trà My yapped: ‘Lady Wendy, that Natalie’s brother. Dung …’ She stopped and corrected herself. ‘David. David is doctor.’

‘Really Natalie, your brother is a doctor?’ Wendy asked.

‘Yes Wendy,’ I said. What was her problem? Did she think I was stupid like Trà My? Too stupid to have a doctor brother?

‘He doesn’t look like you,’ Wendy said.

‘Agree with your clients’ was another piece of advice Dung gave when I started my business. ‘The customer is always right—make that your motto.’

But I did not want to agree with Wendy. ‘Well, my brother is tall,’ I said. Dung was six foot three, much taller than me. I am five foot nothing. And even though they were sitting on stools, I could see that my brother was also much taller than Charlie Cunningham. Dung’s neck started where Charlie Cunningham’s potato head finished.

‘Handsome too,’ Trà My said.

Trà My was right about that at least. Dung was handsome, and on TV that night he looked handsome. His buzz-cut hairstyle looked good. I had cut it for him the week before, in my salon, even though I am not a hairdresser. Number three. Buzz-cut. Just how he liked it since he had started his business and made me cut off his ponytail. His clothes looked good too. A nice white shirt, a sky-blue tie that matched his eyes and navy stovepipe trousers that suited his giraffe legs. Dung was smiling, happy. He was always happy.

‘What you think Lady? Handsome?’ Trà My asked Wendy.

‘Mmm … he’s not really my type,’ Wendy said.

Not her type! Did Wendy think she was Dung’s type? As if! I grabbed the remote and turned the sound up on the TV. Someone was asking Dung and Charlie Cunningham questions, but that person was not on TV. Charlie Cunningham was saying he had started a company that would sell the medicine Dr Tran had discovered. The name of the company was SUPERMAB. I already knew that.

‘What say?’ Trà My asked Wendy.

‘Natalie’s brother is going to be very rich,’ Wendy told her. ‘Charlie Cunningham is saying sales of the drug he discovered will be a billion dollars a year.’

‘Wow!’

‘Yes, wow!’ Wendy said. ‘What’s the problem, Natalie? You don’t look happy.’

I pulled the plug from the footbath. ‘No. No problem.’ I picked up the scalpel. ‘All good.’ I began to scrape the still hard dead skin from Wino Wendy’s heels.

Trà My blabbed on. ‘Lady, other one, Aussie man, get rich too?’

Wendy laughed. ‘Charlie Cunningham? He’s already rich.’

‘Your type?’ Trà My asked.

‘Darl, he’s so rich he’s everybody’s type.’

 

That was how it started. Dung, going on TV with Charlie Cunningham. Charlie Cunningham saying a billion dollars. And the stupid thing, the thing that makes me want to shout out when I’m sad, is this: it wasn’t even true. That’s right. The fat Aussie, Charlie Cunningham, made up the billion dollars.

‘If it was on TV, on the news, it must be true,’ I said to my brother.

‘No Ly, it was just an ad,’ Dung said, ‘an ad for our company, an ad for us.’

Charlie Cunningham made up the billion dollars. He made the movie of him and my brother talking. He sent his movie to the TV and they put it on the news, as if it really was the news. And that was how it started.

 

It was dark when we finished Wendy. ‘You go,’ I told Trà My. ‘I’ll clean up.’

I knew that the man I used to call Pa would be waiting at home for me. He would have heard Charlie Cunningham say the billion dollars on TV, or someone would have told him. He would already be sitting in Má’s kitchen, his snake eyes ready to watch me slurp my canh chua.

I had been too busy that Saturday to eat lunch. Now I was very hungry. I still had the cá kho tộ Má had given me. Aussies do not like its fishy smell, so when Má gave me cá kho tộ I chucked it in the bin. But the night Dung went on TV with Charlie Cunningham, I put my cá kho tộ in the microwave, I switched off the lights in my salon, I sat in the dark and ate it.

 

It was raining when I got off the bus. I walked the four blocks to my street fast and didn’t slow down until I was outside number eight. I could smell pho. I could see the number-eight Nguyens inside, sitting at their table, talking and laughing while they ate their supper. The number-eight Nguyens were eating beef pho.

I kept walking. When I got to number fourteen I stopped and lit the cigarette I’d taken from the pack at my salon. Má would smell it when I went inside. Well, too bad.

I could see the number-fourteen Nguyens inside watching TV. I stood on their nature strip and looked across the road to my house. The man I used to call Pa had parked his black Merc outside. It was parked crooked, staring like a tiger at me. He was already inside. He would be sitting at our table, playing with his big, ugly ring. His foot would be resting on the yellow wall making a dirty mark. Má would have to scrub hard to get that mark off, so hard the paint would come off too. She would have taken the Johnnie Walker whisky out from the back of the cupboard and poured him two fingers. She would have made him a sandwich too. Peanut butter. His favourite. Má would be sitting with him, quiet, while he sipped his whisky and ate his snack. But her hands would be underneath the table, her thin fingers picking her cuticles. She would pick till her cuticles bled. Then she would pick some more.

The rain had stopped, but my denim jacket had got wet. I was cold. I chucked my cigarette butt onto the number-fourteen Nguyens’ grass. I thought about Dung. My smart brother. That day, not so smart. I crossed the road and opened our gate. That was how it started. Seven months later, Dung was dead.


The Revision of Eleanor Reddy by Eva Sandoval

Prologue

For a slice of time, for little reason other than circumstance, her parents were friends with Professor Wade Lawson.

Her mother – Janet Arlington, a civil rights attorney who took offense for strangers but gave little to her own kin – deemed him impressive, whereas her father – Harvey Reddy, also a professor – usually said the man sure could talk.

Professor Wade Lawson taught Psychology at Hunter College in Manhattan where her father taught Economics; where their offices abutted each other; where Freud made a game of leaving his car in Keynes’s parking spot. Professor Wade Lawson had a loud voice. His knuckles smelled sour when he pinched her cheeks. He sat in her father’s armchair and said he’d never been married; simply wasn’t the type. Her mother said that was too bad, that it must get lonely and shouldn’t he come visit – as often as he liked? You’re too kind, said the professor.

So Professor Wade Lawson did come visit – as often as he liked. Her mother didn’t cook, but she did pour wine and she ordered Chinese. Her father discussed politics and Johnny Carson; Professor Wade Lawson fixed his eyes on the small girl in the corner.  

She’s shy, said her father. Don’t worry. But soon, it was Professor Wade Lawson who first said the words abnormal out loud, who went so far as to declare, not merely suggest – as had done her grandparents and teachers – that something was wrong with a child who was five years old and could not speak.

And her mother said: Won’t, you mean. Not to us, not to the nanny, not to her grandparents. Won’t, not can’t.  

And her father’s voice, rising like a flame: She’s shy. She understands us. She’ll talk when she’s ready.

She sat. She listened. The year was 1985; before parenting came in Ritalin form. If she didn’t speak she had her reasons, none of them being that she was slow. So she burrowed under blankets and heard her mother’s voice through the door: I don’t know what to do. She hid inside kitchen cabinets while they had company: Have kids when you’re young; don’t wait like we did. Her mother’s whispers to her at night, folding her unyielding limbs into pajamas: You can talk, I know you can. Talk for mommy. And her father, who tried again and again to take her in his arms, who called her Pal, was on her side, always blindly on her side, while her mother was angry, always angry, and she hid under the bed and her mother said, Wade says something’s wrong and her father said, She’s fine and her mother said, It’s time we admit it. Wade can refer us to someone… and her father said, Absolutely not. The child – understanding, not understanding; remembering, not remembering – heard it all. And one night, she traced the yellow tiles on the kitchen floor and heard her father say, I can’t stick my head in the sand anymore. Something is wrong. But it’s not as you say. You jogged during the pregnancy. You smoked grass in law school. It’s your fault that she can’t act like other kids.

Her father was wrong. Her mother was right. Won’t, not can’t.

She was absolutely right.

*

The silent little girl in the cupboard is Eleanor Frances Reddy. She’s the daughter who wouldn’t talk to her parents, to her nanny or to her cousins, but who could talk, of course. Alone in her room, she’d tested out sounds for years – dog, baby, problem, suffer, go away. She’s the one who could talk but wouldn’t because as far back as she could remember, the sound of voices unsettled her – a feral instinct somewhere between panic and fear – so why add to the noise?

Eleanor Reddy is the one who, at age six, sat on Dr. Nigel Buckingham’s black leather couch. The one who drew purple clouds during the Art Therapy sessions. Why do you choose the dark colors, Eleanor? Who felt ashamed to put her parents in her drawing of “home”; as though it might not be allowed. Who suffered interminable minutes of staring at the doctor’s hands: What did you do today? Nothing. Do you love your parents? Maybe. Yes. But they didn’t love her. At home, her fingernails pricked dents in a green crayon, the zipper of her blue coat twisted off its track: It’s not working. She’s not getting better.

She’s the one who stayed in her room after school and on the weekends, silent as a mummy when the Guatemalan nanny tapped on the door – Nena? Do you need? – and wondering if there was something she could do, anything at all, that wasn’t freakish.

She’s the one who first spoke out loud in front of her parents at the age of six-and-a-half. Because, She does it to hurt me, she gets pleasure from it said her mother – sniffling, always sniffling, with the red eyes.

Professor Wade Lawson: I’m sure that’s not true. Is there mental illness on Harvey’s side of the family?

Her mother: No, she came out this way – funny. She cried all the time but she wouldn’t talk. I didn’t know if she was hungry or sick or just hated me. I still don’t know. She pretends not to hear me. Sometimes she even pretends not to see; she’ll start to walk into traffic, just to make me panic.

Now now, The professor’s hands on her mother’s. His thick finger tracing the path of the tears slipping down her cheek. You mustn’t do this to yourself, darling. Eleanor didn’t care about the noise anymore. She just wanted to not be “funny”; to never have to see the doctor or Professor Wade Lawson again. So the barest minimum: Milk, please and Goodnight and Thank you. It was enough; the joy on her father’s face! Hey, just listen to that little voice. What do you say, Pal, what do you say? The relief, washing out of her mother’s eyes: Oh, thank God. The end of Dr. Buckingham. Not, however, the end of Professor Wade Lawson.

She is the one who watched the other children at school. The way they looped arms around each other’s waists and made fun of each other while smiling the whole time. The way their hands shot out like beggars’ when one of them had a snack. The stupid things they said in silly voices: Olly olly oxen free. Hunter and Jessica sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G. And then the mean things they said to her: You never talk, is it because you’re sad? Fine, don’t play with us, then; be that way. She tried not to learn their copycat rhymes. She understood that they pitied her and if it weren’t for that, they would never talk to her, never look at her, because they didn’t like her, and if they didn’t like her, she couldn’t like them.

Eleanor Reddy is the redheaded girl with the narrow face and deep-set gray eyes who wasn’t pretty and, as such, was never petted. That was okay, sort of; anyway, she wasn’t weak, so she didn’t cry. Sometimes, though, if there were no seats for her at the lunch table, if her mother said Honestly, Eleanor, in that choking tone of voice, she’s the one who could be found sitting behind a wall, fanning her hands in front of her eyes. It mostly took away the sting.

*

That was the core of Eleanor Reddy, okay; the raw, rough elements. But two things happened later on that hammered her into her true shape: fatal alchemy.

The piano lessons

This had been risky of her parents – after all, she didn’t like the dolls they gave her. She didn’t like the sports she was made to play at school. She didn’t like ballerinas or unicorns or dress-up and, at first, she didn’t like the idea of piano lessons either. But when she was seven years old, her mother took her to an apartment in Chelsea, full of wide red bodega carnations and tiny cross-stitches of proud and timid dogs, where there lived a Southern woman called Coraline Duncan who had feathered blonde hair and a honeyed mouth. Southern Coraline Duncan said Ell-nore this is Middle C. When Eleanor touched that slender white key, it sang out, sweet and pure, and it was her making that noise, her fingers humming like bees. And if she did whatever Coraline Duncan said, Coraline Duncan played a song just for her at the end of the lesson. At home, on the phone, Eleanor’s mother said, We’ve gotten Eleanor piano lessons. Finally, something she likes! And you know, she isn’t half-bad at it? Harvey and I are absolutely thrilled.

In that small Chelsea apartment, Eleanor Reddy savored her first tastes of anticipation, excitement and pride – the anticipation of hearing beautiful noise; the excitement of learning to make it herself; the pride of finally creating something good. She liked Joplin best, the bouncy, thrilling Maple Leaf Rag, and when she secretly pressed her heels against the back of the piano while Coraline Duncan played, she felt the music in her legs, in her knees, through her entire body. Like magic. Like thunder.

The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway in 1988. Yes, with Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman as The Phantom and Christine (!)

Oh, this was very special. Why did her father take her there that night? He wasn’t a music man; he listened to Doo Wop, to The Miami Sound Machine. Who had told him that there was a place filled with velvet drapes with musicians hidden underground, that there was once a disfigured genius who lived beneath the Paris Opera House; that Michael Crawford had the most wonderful voice in the world? There he was in his white mask, wrapping his hands around Sarah Brightman’s waist. There was the chandelier, threatening to crash down and destroy everyone’s lives. Eleanor’s hands gripped the seat in front of her. Her lips tried to mumble along with the notes. Her heart pounded when Christine kissed the Phantom behind the wall of that music.

When the lights finally came up, Eleanor couldn’t breathe. You really liked this, didn’t you, Pal? Eleanor said nothing. She said nothing later when he took her to see Cats – darts of ecstasy piercing her heart when Grizabella belted “Memory!” – and she said nothing further, even as she thrilled in secret silence, when he took her to see Les Misérables. Cassette tapes began appearing in Christmas stockings: The King & I, Chicago, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Man of La Mancha. Every show was a glorious mishmash of sounds upon the first listen; each its own world with its own pulse, and, soon, each note more familiar than any freckle on the backs of her hands. Why Miss Ell-nore, you want to play Broadway music? I don’t see why not! Eleanor Reddy covered school notebooks with her favorite libretto lyrics; scrawled a mental mindfuck can be nice in red ink down the freckled underbellies of her arm. For all anyone cared about her, “Mr. Cellophane” should have indeed been her name!

There was the Don Quixote, the madman of La Mancha, who saw dragons where there were only windmills and virgin Dulcineas where there were only prostitute Aldonzas. The miserable French urchin Eponine, who loved the student Marius and suffered agonies upon watching him fall in love with the bourgeois Cosette. She saw herself in the Phantom – a musical genius shunned by all. It was the beautiful villains she loved the best – the Phantoms, the Judases, the Javerts, the Evitas, the Engineers. Theirs were the voices sung by the black keys, and when she sat down at the piano sometimes, instead of playing Jesus Christ Superstar or Evita, she touched different keys in different rhythms and those different rhythms became her own melodies, and they were good, and one day she thought, Could I make a musical, too? My very own musical with my very own characters that someone would put on a real tape and people would buy and listen to and love?

She thought, Maybe it could be an old story made new and cool, like Miss Saigon.

She thought, Do I know any good old stories? Would people like the one I chose? Will anyone want to listen to the music I make?

At the piano, pummeling the keys with all her despair and hope, she sometimes thought it could happen, and from then on, when she woke in the mornings, she wanted to get up; she sat up and put one foot in front of the other and those steps took her to the piano, to the music she was making on her very own.

Bluntly put, musical theater saved Eleanor Reddy’s life.

*

Eleanor, said her mother, Don’t you have any friends?

Eleanor Reddy at age ten: gangly, restless, and hard. Two years after the divorce. That was Professor Wade Lawson again – information Eleanor had learned from the walls long before her father did. But she didn’t mind too much; after all, Professor Wade Lawson’s disappearance was almost as fast as his meddling had been destructive, so he was gone, finally, good riddance. Was Janet sad? Yes, Eleanor could see that, and once she tried to sit near her, tried to touch her hand, but Janet said, Go to your room now, so Eleanor touched hands with no one. Was Harvey angry? Maybe, but around Eleanor he only smiled with tight white lips. So Eleanor thought about other things: her perfect afternoons at the piano while her mother read briefs in her study – the black tension a protective cocoon Eleanor came to treasure. Her weekends with her father at the Central Park Zoo, at Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop, at Coney Island. She could be as quiet as she wanted while her father led her down the rickety salt-sprayed boardwalk, weathered slat by weathered slat, as he told her about the history of the Astroland amusement park, how very old the roller coaster was and could she just imagine how it must have blown all those pantalooned Victorians’ minds? She could watch the Wonder Wheel’s lumbering descent; listen to her father and chew fried clam strips and Nathan’s hot dogs until her belly hurt. She could pretend to be asleep on the train ride home – another precious cocoon.

But Eleanor’s mother always needed an answer. So, did she? Did she have any friends?

No, Eleanor said, because it was true. The kids at school still called her Mute and they still called her Weird but they usually just ignored her so what was the point of talking to any of them, or to the teachers who, just in time for Parent-Teacher conferences, stopped her in the hallways and asked her if she was okay?

The word hovered between them. And Eleanor’s mother looked sad, the way she often did when Eleanor’s father came to pick her up on the weekends, or when she watched the phone; rubbing her naked ring finger with her thumb.

But, Janet said, don’t you think you’d like some?

Eleanor said, No.

Janet said, Why?

Eleanor said, I hate people.

Her mother said, Life will be hard for you, daughter of mine.

*

Was it hard? Ask someone who knew any different. Eleanor Reddy went to school and did her homework and went to piano lessons with Coraline Duncan; she opened birthday gifts in May and, in December, sat down to Christmas ham with her mother. Her cousins talked about My friend Jessica from Cheerleading and My friend Rebecca from Sunday School but Eleanor met Jessica and Rebecca and they looked at her funny, and God was just a terrific story like Santa Claus, so what was the point?

Eleanor Reddy was ten and Eleanor Reddy was eleven and then Eleanor Reddy was in Junior High, bleeding every month on the outside, bleeding every day on the inside. She saw the other girls, the Normal Girls, who sat on each other’s laps, doing quizzes in glossy magazines; who sprayed their bangs stiff and wore kiwi-scented lip balm. Those Normal Girls could do anything, Eleanor thought. Everything was easy for them. They were pretty. They had friends. The boys sent them folded-up notes that made them giggle and asked them to the dances, which made them squeal. Nobody asked Eleanor to the dances. Nobody sent her folded-up notes.

The teachers talked about careers, about purpose. Eleanor wanted to tell someone, anyone, When I grow up, I want to be a composer like Andrew Lloyd Webber. Now and then, she thought about telling Coraline Duncan but something had told her even back then that the woman was not to be trusted; some whispering, girlish intuition that Eleanor felt compelled to obey, so she told Coraline Duncan nothing; showed up to lessons and did what she was told. No; a great desire burned in her chest but there was no one to tell because there was no one who cared what she wanted, if she was happy, if she was sad, or if she got hit by a car, maybe. Sometimes Eleanor liked to do that; cross the street, feel the energy of the air when a car rushed past her and wonder – what if I didn’t move – would I be Cellophane then, too? Would it move right through me, would anyone know I was there?

Was that the definition of a hard life?

*

Maybe. But then, one day, there was Mina.

*

Eleanor Reddy on her first day of high school, September 10th 1994. Wearing black Doc Martens and holey purple stockings, her red hair in dreadlocks and safety pins through her earlobes because it’s a hard day in any girl’s life when she accepts that she will never be beautiful, that no amount of sunlight can turn a thick-waisted, narrow-faced, redheaded thistle into a rose. Her mother, balancing a stack of briefs and peering at her daughter over horn-rimmed bifocals, said, Eleanor, don’t you want boys to like you? And Eleanor said, Who cares? The joke was on anyone who had ever called her a freak; on her mother who had suffered every day since having her, on her father who pandered her with hollow kindness, on Dr. Nigel Buckingham who had wasted her parents’ money. Eleanor was biding time. Pulling all As and Bs. Soaking up Coraline Duncan’s teachings to perfect her craft. Counting down the years, months, and weeks in her head until December 1997: when she could audition for The Juilliard School and show them all..!

But her schedule put her in Mrs. Daughtry’s Third Period English Honors class – not Mr. Greene’s or Mr. Lowenstein’s. Eleanor sat in the back of the room. She steeled her ears against the noise and examined her Docs; frowned at the fresh smear of yellow bubblegum on the heel. Yo! Your safety pins are kickin’; how did you get them in there? Do they hurt? Great, the sarcastic dickweeds never wasted any time ganging up on the freaks, did they? Geez… I was just asking… Never mind, then.

She heard Mina before she saw her. The shrieks. The giggles. You had to look – that was the entire point. And Eleanor looked. That was the first time she ever saw Mina’s face, stamped forevermore in her mind like the relief of a cameo – pale against the halo of white flowers that were clipped to her black, pin-straight hair. She was standing on a desk. She was wearing a red tutu.

Mrs. Daughtry said, Hannah Levitz, please sit down! The girl on the desk put her hand on her tutu-ed hip. She pouted. Sit down, Hannah. These are very old desks!

And then the girl sang.

My name isn’t Hannah; it’s Mina. She held her arms out to the class like Evita Perón: Don’t cry for me, Eastside High School!

The day Eleanor was born.

The first piano lesson in 1987.

The first musical in 1988.

The first time she heard Mina sing.

She stared down at her desk: BRITTANY HATES TODD was scratched on the plastic surface in leaky blue ballpoint pen. The girl was still singing; belting and then hitting high, piercing notes. Hannah Mina please sit down! She was amazing. She was tragic. She was the most beautiful sound Eleanor had ever heard. Fine! You’ll all be sorry when I’m famous! BRITTANY HATES TODD. The yellow gum on the bottom of her Doc. Eleanor blinked back tears; mortified; pressing the insides of her wrists into her eyes. The girl’s voice was like coming home.

First Chapters: 2017 Shortlist

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

I

September 1757

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.

CHAPTER 1

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.’

‘Mum!’

‘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?’

‘No.’

‘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.’

‘I know.’

‘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.’

‘Oh.’

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.

‘Really?’

‘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.

‘Maybe.’

‘Really?’

Lallie shrugged.

‘I miss mum,’ she said.

Mum had only been gone a couple of days. Lallie never said stuff like that.

‘What’s wrong?’

‘I don’t know, there’s just, so much bad stuff on the news.’

‘You shouldn’t watch it.’

‘But it’s true.’

‘Like what?’

‘There’s people drowning in Europe.’

‘Oh Lal.’

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.’

‘Thanks Ithy.’

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

1

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 what?’

‘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.’

‘In Spain?’

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.

2

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?’

‘Chicken stir-fry.’

‘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.’

‘But…’

‘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

SATURDAY

ONE

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.’

TUESDAY

TWO

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?’

‘It’s n…nothing.’

‘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

Chapter One

Lamplight Cleaners

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.

‘It’s Cam.’

‘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 . . .’

‘Maria.’

‘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

Chapter 1

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 – .’

‘Gosh, thanks.’

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.

2015 WINNER AND LISTEES

The winner of The Caledonia Novel Award 2015 is Justine Taylor for The Chill Mark. Justine, a freelance editor and literary consultant from Eastbourne in East Sussex, receives £1,000 and our exclusive papercut trophy, designed by Edinburgh-based artist, Alice B Spicer .

Competition judge and literary agent Hellie Ogden said: The Chill Mark shows the most promise and there are moments of great suspense. There is something really intriguing about this book.”

Justine describes her novel as a portrayal of an awkward brother-sister relationship and the consequences of what crime does to the people left behind.

2015 WINNER’S INTERVIEW

Justine, many congratulations on winning the inaugural Caledonia Novel Award with The Chill Mark.

Thank you! And thanks for organising! I’ve really enjoyed the experience, and I’ve met lots of other writers through Twitter because of this competition, so that’s been a lovely unexpected benefit.

Can you tell us what it was like finding out that you had won?

It was a series of surprises, first being longlisted, and then shortlisted, and then the winner’s announcement. I tried very hard not to let myself get too excited as I didn’t want to disappoint myself! I’m so thrilled.

What was your inspiration for writing The Chill Mark?

While I enjoy a good crime novel, I was more interested in writing about the build up to a crime and what happens afterwards, the impact that such an event has on the people left behind, than writing a straightforward whodunit. I was thinking a lot about guilt and responsibility as I wrote The Chill Mark. Ellie, one of the survivors, is unable to talk about what happened to her family because she doesn’t want to confront her role in the events of that night. That inability to face up to her past contributes to the mistakes that she makes in her present-day life.

Did your novel go through many changes, and is the end product what you’d planned?

Yes, many changes, and originally I intended the ending to be much more action-packed, but as I wrote my way through the story, I realised that the ending I first thought of wasn’t appropriate. The character who became Ellie’s brother Adam was completely different at first, and not likeable at all. It took me a while to understand his motivations but once I did, the book changed course. I did have a plan when I started, but I found myself revisiting and changing it every couple of months as the characters developed. For me, it was helpful to work out what each character wanted, and why that was in conflict with other characters’ desires. So yes, I did find myself going off-plan quite a bit.

Saying that, there are a few images that have been there from the very start. The image Ellie has of the silhouette of a man standing in the doorway was the first one that came to my mind when I started thinking about the book. Also, I wanted to write about glass blowing – it’s such a physically demanding process and yet what is produced is so delicate. I like that contradiction between process and product.

When and where do you write?

I try to write first thing in the morning, or late afternoon once I’ve finished work. I get a lot of writing done at the weekend. If I’m writing a scene I find difficult – perhaps because it’s emotionally harrowing or because I haven’t got a handle on it yet – I like to use pen and paper first, and then type it up later, revising it a little as I go. Thinking time is important too – getting outside and walking helps me solve problems, though a long soak in a hot bath is also good.

Writing can be lonely, and I found going to meet-ups where a group of strangers sat together to write was helpful – as was the discussion in the pub afterwards! My local library is a nice place to write in, airy and light, and I like writing in cafes, but I tend not to do that very much. I’m most often found at home at my desk.

Are you a member of a writing group?

I took the Novel Studio course run by City University in 2012–13, and I got a lot out of that – the tutors were all brilliant. There were 15 of us on the course, and since it finished, about 10 of us meet fortnightly to discuss eachother’s work. They’re such a talented group of writers, and all of them are so generous with their time and thoughts. We all know eachother’s work and writing style really well now, which helps with the discussion. I feel very lucky to have met them all, and would definitely recommend joining a writing group. It’s helped me immeasurably and it’s so interesting to see other writers’ work develop over time.

Which writers do you enjoy reading?

So many! I love Muriel Spark, Iris Murdoch, Zadie Smith, Margaret Atwood. Tim Winton writes landscape beautifully and Breath and Dirt Music are favourites of mine. I loved Cara Hoffmann’s Be Safe I Love You and Miriam Toews All My Puny Sorrows. Also, Cormac McCarthy, Hilary Mantel, Rose Tremain, Paul Murray, Anne Tyler, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie… I thought The Valley by Richard Benson, which is non-fiction but reads like a novel, was fantastic.

I’ve been reading a lot of short stories lately too, people like David Vann, Karen Russell, Alison Moore, Janet Frame, Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant. Crime writers I love include Tana French and Denise Mina. The Boat by Clara Salaman is a gripping psychological thriller and plays with point of view in an interesting way.

What next for The Chill Mark?

I feel like I’m approaching the end of one part of the process – writing and revising – and am starting the next phase – getting it out there. While the ultimate goal is publication, I want to find the right agent for me and my book, and so I’m going to focus on that.

What advice would you give to anyone thinking of entering the 2016 Caledonia Novel Award?

It can be daunting to expose your writing to people you don’t know but entering a competition is a good way to start putting your work out there. Break it into small steps – I set up reminders on my phone so I knew how long I had left to enter. I made lots of lists – scenes to complete, chapters to revise, overused words or phrases to delete or change…

If you haven’t finished your novel yet, try and finish it as quickly as you can – it’s much easier to rewrite words that are already there than to confront a blank page. Then put it away for a while so that you can come to it with fresh eyes. Prepare yourself for a lot of rewriting (I find rewriting rewarding and enjoyable) and when you’re ready, show it to someone whose opinion you trust. Ask them not to be too picky – perhaps ask them to point out passages that they felt were dull or areas where they weren’t sure what was going on. There will probably be another set of revises after that.

Once you’ve polished your book, send it off and try to forget about it. Start something new, and when the day comes when the longlist is announced, try not to hover between your laptop and your phone as you wait for news…

THE CALEDONIA NOVEL AWARD 2015 SHORTLIST

After the Affair Jacquie Bloese
Running Out Dave Essinger
The Chill Mark Justine Taylor
The Murder House Vanessa Savage

THE CALEDONIA NOVEL AWARD 2015 LONGLIST

A Fine House in Trinity Lesley Kelly
After the Affair Jacquie Bloese
Fierce Animals Fran Slater
Hidden Roots Cary Reynolds
Run for Your Life Sarah Linley
Running Out Dave Essinger
The Chill Mark Justine Taylor
The Days Are Falling In Beverly Stark
The Joyce Girl Annabel Abbs
The Murder House Vanessa Savage
This Eden Called Warsaw Suzanne Reisman
Wimmera Mark Brandi