First Chapters: 2023 Shortlist

Here are the first chapters of the seven novels shortlisted for the Caledonia Novel Award 2023.

WINNER

The Small Museum by Jody Cooksley

Exhibit 1: Grey stone female figurine. Hellenic. Catalogued 1873

Our wedding was cold and silent, unmarked by flowers or hymns. Pity no choir drowned the noise of my sister. Isabel had no right to cry. She’d done nothing to save me and now her weeping echoed round the chapel and tore at my nerves. I gripped Father’s arm, feeling the darned patch in his suit and watched the congregation through watery eyes. In the left pews sat as many family shreds as Mother could gather at short notice, overdressed in country finery. On Dr Everley’s side was a group of suited men, and a woman in a beautiful emerald dress with mourning bands. She could not help those, but surely everyone knew green clothes brought bad luck? A wide-brimmed hat hid her face from view; a fox stole clawed across her shoulders.

Mother beamed so brightly I felt ashamed. She had no need to pretend we were happy, everyone in the church knew my duty – a respectable marriage to heal our past. Isabel was quick enough to explain. ‘What chance of escape, for either of us, if you refuse?’ So why was she crying? Not for me. Mother ignored her, turning to wave at the aunts like a duchess at a coronation, and Isabel sniveled into her handkerchief, throwing sideways looks at my shoes. Pale blue kid with two rows of buttons and heels that clicked when I walked. They were all that felt beautiful. ‘Shoes for a lady,’ Mother sighed as the cobblers boxed them up and Isabel sulked for a day. She was welcome to walk in them now. 

My veil was the ‘something old’. A gift from Grandmother, delivered in a package of waxed paper stretched thin as her lips. ‘An heirloom meant for three sisters,’ was all she said but I knew she blamed Mother for Rebecca’s disgrace. She blamed her for this too, saying things about Dr Everley that made me anxious. Hinting at darkness. Father’s friendship with Dr Everley was shrouded in stage smoke, yet now I must promise to honour him, and all Mother said was that I should be glad he wasn’t ugly. He was tall, sword-slim, with just a streak of grey hair at his temple.

Through Grandmother’s fine lace I saw high cheekbones, eyes dark as tombs and deep lines around his mouth as though everything displeased him. Would marriage make him happy? He had certainly seemed keen, arranging things so quickly we’d barely had time to talk. Weddings at home were often fixed at birth to keep estates intact. They’d grow up knowing they belonged to one another; teasing turning to flirting and fascination. Mother scorned the buttercup crowns, but village weddings were full of joy and fresh tears pricked my eyes at the memory. I swallowed hard. As Mother said, I was to be wed, and I should make the best of it. 

Paintings flanked the altar, crowding the wall. Gilded frames around the lives of saints. Symeon in his cave, Sebastian shot with arrows. The artist seemed especially to relish the sufferance of holy women. Devoted Agatha on fire; Felicity torn to pieces by wild animals; and Perpetua herself, so great a woman she could not be slain unless she herself willed it. When the service ended, Dr Everley took my hand and I recoiled at his icy touch. He didn’t lift the veil to kiss me. All along the aisle, one arm in the crook of his, the other aching from the weight of my bouquet, I imagined Perpetua and willed myself not to be slain.

 

At least there would be music at the reception. We came directly from the church, in two coaches which, to Mother’s delight, both bore the Everley crest.

‘Will there be dancing?’ Isabel indicated the string quartet setting up in the corner.

I shook my head, embarrassed. Who could imagine Dr Everley dancing? He was a man of letters, too clever for amusements. Father said his research was gaining attention, perhaps notoriety, and I always pictured him in a library. ‘Dr Everley’s a serious man.’

‘But he’s a gentleman. You’ll do alright here.’ Isabel surveyed the room, devouring details for Mother when they returned home and left me. ‘Those colours!’

‘This isn’t his house.’ I would not give her the satisfaction of admitting it was beautiful. Watered silk dressed the walls in shimmering tangerine and the furniture was covered to match, low ottomans and broad-backed chairs in intimate groups. Small dark-wood tables waited to hold drinks and cigars. ‘He may live in a perfect hovel for all we know. I’m sure Mother forgot to request the details in her haste to see me off.’ I should be trying to lift Isabel’s spirits, but I had no patience for such foolish talk. What did orange walls matter? My life was ripped apart.

‘Father’s been to his house.’

‘His clinic.’ I couldn’t imagine them as equals. Father had barely a fee-paying patient left. ‘You know Brewsters aren’t welcome in respectable places.’ I turned away too late to avoid the hurt in her face.

‘Don’t you want to be happy? You’ll want for nothing now.’

‘I wanted nothing before.’ Why should everyone’s fate rest in my hands? Isabel and the boys could look forward to the summer at Lynton and I would have enjoyed it more than any of them. It was never I who resented the creeping shame after Rebecca left, the lack of invitations, all the parties and picnics we missed. Lynton would have been enough for me. Walking the dogs in the coppice, taking my sketchbook, or setting my easel in the orchards. The scent of long grass and ripe apples. No-one to watch or admonish. No responsibilities. Before Dr Everley came, I was free as the swifts that returned in spring. As free as my brothers to sketch and draw all day. Afterwards I was made to wear dresses that caught on branches, hair dressed and fussed until my scalp ached. Mother closed my sketchbooks and balanced them on my head, training me to stand tall and walk without them falling. She dismissed all my careful notes and drawings as ‘showing off’, and I bit my lip until it bled.

Isabel sighed. ‘You’ll have a house. A London address! And people to call. Your husband will be respected. You can stop worrying that you’ll die before you live.’

‘I’ve never worried about that.’ I frowned. Mother threw a sharp look from the buffet table and my heart sank as she bore down on us, a full plate in one hand, the other pulling at her gown, stretched so tight she could barely walk.

‘For heavens’ sake, Madeleine, stop looking so miserable. You’re as far from a blushing bride as it’s possible to be! You don’t want Dr Everley changing his mind.’

‘It would be a little late if he did.’

‘You think he will like sarcasm? You’re lucky to be taken at all.’

I tried to smile before she moved off to seize Aunt Honour. No use in parting on bad terms; I would miss them soon enough. I turned to Isabel. ‘You’ll come to stay, won’t you? As soon as you can.’ I could not imagine life without them.

‘You’ll need to ask permission for that now.’ Isabel looked across at Dr Everley, deep in conversation with an elaborately whiskered man. She sighed again. ‘Perhaps your new husband will want you all to himself.’

‘Lucius is not such a selfish man.’ The woman in the wide-veiled hat extended her hand and I pressed it, hit by an overpowering scent of roses and something sickly that I couldn’t place. My cheeks burned to think what she’d overheard. Such striking looks, with amber eyes and deep red hair set off by the green of her gown. The fox on her shoulders bared sharp white teeth.

‘Delighted to meet you, dear sister. Lucius has told me so little about you that I feared I would guess all wrong. But you’re perfect. So young. So pretty.’ Said with the confidence of one who knows her own appearance is unrivalled. ‘I’ll visit as soon as you’re settled. Do you like children? I could bring them, ghastly as they are. But we might better get to know each other if I leave them with nurse.’ She paused, throwing her hair back over one shoulder. ‘But I mustn’t put you off. Lucius adores children.’

Dr Everley – I must try to call him Lucius – had told me very little. We only walked together once, talking mostly of his work. I learned about his expertise in bone-setting and the method by which his father cured a royal child of club foot. Yet I knew nothing of his family.

Isabel dropped an awkward curtsey and the woman turned, clasping her hands together in a dramatic gesture.

‘You must be dear Madeleine’s true sister; you look so very alike. I am Lucius’ sister, Grace. I hope you don’t mind me stealing her? There was only ever Lucius and I, and I have always longed for a sister of my own.’

‘We have brothers too. We know very well how they can be,’ I said, trying to cover my surprise. A new sister, just as beautiful as Rebecca.

‘Are they also doctors?’ She looked around as though trying to identify them, her lip curling slightly at the sight of Mother clinking glasses. ‘I hope not for your sake. So dreary always being called to watch Lucius’s scientific experiments. Frogs and fireworks.’ She raised her hand as if to brush their childhood away, but her eyes shone. They must be very close.

‘They’re still in school. Younger than us, but even younger brothers can be demanding. James would like to travel; he’s keen on India. I think one day he’ll make a fine businessman.’ I pointed at my brother who was trying to balance one more cake on an overloaded plate. A surge of love and sympathy welled. Perhaps it would now be in my power to help him make his way in the world.

‘He’s remarkably young, but then you,’ she looked me up and down, ‘are remarkably young also. Don’t expect too much of my brother and perhaps you’ll be happy together.’ She continued to hold me in her steady gaze.

I nodded, unsure what she meant. What was too much to expect? I felt silly; a child dressed up as a bride. We waited warily until Isabel blurted out, ‘Your gown is so beautiful.’

Grace turned her attention. ‘I did worry that its colour might offend you. I know that country folk can sometimes be… superstitious in believing that green will bring bad luck to a wedding but it’s new and I so wanted to wear it and I can see that you two, at least, are not the type.’

Isabel opened her mouth, and I threw her a warning glance.

‘Perhaps a cup of tea?’ Grace perched on the edge of a small love seat and smoothed her dress, watching Isabel rush to obey. She was clearly used to people doing as she asked.

‘Sweet thing,’ she said. ‘And you have another sister, I believe? But she… can’t be here?’

I nodded, turning my head so my face would not betray me, though I could feel the way she watched me.

‘Perhaps that is why the rest of your family came? I understood Lucius asked for a quiet ceremony.’

‘Mother is fond of a gathering.’

‘So I see. And how do you like our little part of London?’ She leaned in, expectant. The fox’s eyes glinted orange.

What I’d seen from the carriage couldn’t have been more different to the market towns and villages of Cheshire. So many tall buildings, so many strangers. ‘The streets are very wide,’ I said, instantly wishing I’d thought of something clever to say.

‘You’ve never been up to town before?’

She must think me naïve. Isabel’s return interrupted the need for an answer. If my hand shook slightly as I accepted the tea-cup, if her fingers gripped the saucer a little too fiercely, then both of us worked hard not to show it.

 

By the time our party left, the sky was darkening to black. Rain drizzled down. Gas-lamps blurred in the mist, so the street seemed viewed through tears. Yet London was alive as day, thick with walking couples and costers in bright coats, gentlemen calling from their carriage to be let down at the very door we were leaving to go home. Lucius grabbed my arm and steered me away, almost pushing me inside the carriage.

‘I’m sorry they took so long.’ I leant against the window, tired from attention and long farewells, and rubbed my sleeve where his fingers had pressed too firmly.

‘You’d think they’d want to get home. It’s a long enough drive.’

‘James said if Thursday’s weather was good there’d be a picnic by the pack bridge.’

‘Indeed.’ Lucius replied.

His disinterest in my family was plain. Why would he care? But the thought of them all together dried my throat and I found nothing else to say. Mother had probably organised the picnic to campaign her social return. James planned to try painting the bridge, he promised to send me the picture, though he was a boy and would forget. They would all carry on just as well without me. I could write and remind him, ask him to post my paints. I wish I’d thought to pack them, though I wasn’t sure there’d be enough grey to paint London. Perhaps it would seem less miserable in daylight.

We travelled in silence until the carriage rolled to a halt at the centre of a long, curved street. Houses all pushed together with no room to breathe. Arlington Crescent had grey brick buildings, patterned with sandstone, and lidded with slate tiles that gathered like frowns over the eaves. Lucius took my arm to help me down and led me to a flight of worn stone steps, railed with iron. Number five had huge windows and white shutters, a shiny black front door. ‘Elegant,’ Mother would declare. It looked unfriendly and I longed for the thatched roof and sprawling lawns of Lynton. Two rows of windows glared out under the low hanging roof. How many servants could a single man need? How many would I have to manage? There was only Ellen at home.

‘Good evening, sir.’ The sudden deep voice was startling. ‘Good evening, madam.’ Standing in the darkness was an old man, his back slightly crooked, the tails of his black coat hanging to his knees. A strange smell emanated through the open doorway. Sweet and rotten, like forgotten flowers long dead in their urn.

‘Evening, Barker. Take the bags, would you? And have Mrs Barker show my wife to her rooms, make sure she’s comfortable.’ He turned to me with his sister’s air of assurance. ‘It’s been a long day and I’m sure you’ll wish to retire. l rise early for work, but the Barkers will see that you have what you need.’ Holding out his hand he reached towards me and then seemed to think better of it. ‘I’ll take my brandy in the study.’

I wanted to keep him there, to apologise for the guests, the noise of the wedding. He was a quiet man and I would have liked him to realise that I understood him. But he didn’t wait, and Mrs Barker was already sailing down the passage, her black dress scratching against the walls.

 

Half the night I waited for steps in the corridor. They all told me – Mother, my cousins, even Grandmother – that he would come whatever happened, that men would always come. They told me things I only half believed. Cradled in the stiff four-poster bed I waited, at first with the curtains tightly shut and then, when I couldn’t stand wondering if he’d come in unseen, with them hanging half open again. I sat upright as a statue, a stone figure, stiff with waiting, until I drifted in and out of fitful sleep, dreaming of some unknown thing that followed close behind me only to disappear as I turned.

 

2: Great Marlborough Street Public Office

‘Am I to understand that she killed her own child?’ The magistrate sounded bored, as though he dealt with such things every day and they never troubled his sleep. He spoke slowly, precisely, his head resting delicately on his left arm, while the right smoothed a sheaf of papers on his desk.

‘Yes. Sir.’ Mrs Atherton added the title as though she would rather not and patted her hat. I’d never seen her in daylight, and she looked different without jewels. She was still beautiful. More so, perhaps, her colouring enhanced by the simplicity of her grey dress.

‘Was there anything in Mrs Everley’s behaviour, or manner, prior to this that might lead you to believe she was capable of such a thing?’

The magistrate motioned to a scribe and handed over the papers before turning his full attention to the witness stand. Court life had given him an ashen complexion and pouches of skin gathered beneath his eyes. How many horrors had he judged?

‘There were several… incidents.’

Silence hung in the waiting room.

‘Continue, Mrs Atherton.’ The magistrate waved his hand. ‘This office must take everything into consideration before deciding how to proceed.’

‘My sister-in-law was awkward with my own children. She behaved strangely around them, as though she couldn’t bear to have them near her.’

‘What age are your children, Mrs Atherton?’

‘Four and eight years. A girl and two boys. Twins.’

‘Did Mrs Everley have a relationship with the children?’

Grace bowed her head demurely and her lashes threw long shadows across her cheeks. A perfect society mother. ‘She’s the wife of my brother. When he married, I brought my babies to visit, of course, so that they would know their only aunt. I had hoped they would love one another.’ She glanced up at the viewing gallery and, for a brief moment, our eyes locked. I hoped she could see what I thought of her act. Maddie always suspected she had something to hide. If poor Maddie had asked for my help, we might never have ended up here. I wished she had trusted my friendship more and I willed Mrs Atherton to falter, but she was perfectly calm. ‘I’m sorry to say that she didn’t take to them. She seemed almost afraid to be in the same room. I remember one incident where she deliberately knocked Eloise from her chair and then tried to blame Edmond. Poor girl was quite hurt. Madeleine showed no concern at all.’

‘Was Mrs Everley ever alone with the children?’

Grace looked horrorstruck. Her right arm hovered across her heart. What an actress.

‘I would never have left Madeleine alone with them. Goodness knows what might have happened. On another occasion she pushed Edmond, quite violently, in front of an open window. I am sure she meant him harm.’

‘Do you have anything further to add?’

‘She wandered. All the time. Up and down the corridors in the night. And she slept at strange hours of the day too, always going to bed in the afternoon. My brother said she sleepwalked. But she always seemed quite awake to me when we encountered her. It was as though she used restlessness as an excuse for being all over the house.’

Why did she need an excuse for being all over her own house? Why didn’t the magistrate ask that? And where was Lucius? His own wife sat motionless in the wooden dock, hands chained, weals clearly visible on her arms, below the short sleeves of her prison dress. Her face was hidden by guards, though I could see her hair was filthy and matted. Her beautiful hair. I could weep at the sight of it. How much had she borne alone? I should have been a better friend. If I’d listened more carefully, I could have seen this coming.


 

HIGHLY COMMENDED

Shamed by Sophie Boyack

Hannah sat outside court number seven.  She wore black; it was anathema to wear anything else in this building.  A deep paper cut on her index finger absorbed her.  It probably needed a plaster, but she didn’t have one.  Hearing purposeful footsteps on the stairs behind her, she didn’t turn to look.  An usher perhaps, heading to the fifth floor to collect a jury or a barrister popping up to the mess room.  In no mood for pleasantries with well-meaning colleagues, she leant forward, elbows on knees and looked at her watch. 

The floor to ceiling windows had been opened slightly at the top and the long gauzy curtains fluttered in the breeze.  It was a fragile spring day outside.  She skated over her statement again, but there was no need, it was etched on her bones.  She only had to tell what she had seen and what she subsequently did, nothing more.  Counsel for the prosecution would prod and poke with questions about bad character but she would hold firm.  She brought the paper cut to her lips and worried at it with her tongue.  Had someone told Christopher to brush back his hair and trim his beard?  Had he been warned what to expect?

More footsteps and the gentle babble of voices on the stairs heralded what must be the arrival of another jury.  This time she glanced over her shoulder.  An assortment of twelve, several days, or even weeks into their trial from the way friendships and alliances had already formed.  A lone outsider kept himself apart while the others hovered by the stairwell switching off their phones, finishing their coffees.  Hannah longed for the weight of horsehair on her head, the weave of woollen gown on her back, a crisp white collarette around her neck as if the familiar garb might shroud her in objectivity. 

Someone appeared in the vestibule, but it wasn’t Lesley, the usher whom she had known for years, it was D.I. Pocock.

“They’re still not ready,” he said, holding the door shut behind his back.

She nodded.

“How are you?”

“Fine, thanks.  You?”

“Good.  Yes.  Look, Hannah I know this is difficult …”

“Please - don’t start.  There really is nothing you can say.”

He shrugged and slid back through the door.  As if she needed to be told about the slow and steady pace of the law at work. 

 

Chris watched Pocock glide back into his seat.  He wanted to catch his eye, to show how much he despised him, but the man was too busy shaking himself down, cracking his neck from left to right.  Smug bastard.  All those questions.  All those assumptions.  All those months ago. 

Already Chris had been in the dock for more than an hour while salt and pepper wigs nodded and whispered to one another and numerous boxes of documents were unpacked and carefully stacked.  Now the jurors were being selected, their names called by the clerk, the judge steady in his insistence that it was a civic duty to serve.  Chris worked at the palms of his hands with his thumbs, while a trickle of sweat ran from armpit to elbow.  Did he smell?  He probably did. 

Tom Bradley-Evans QC stood for the prosecution and cleared his throat.  One of those boys who had always come top, a winner from the infant school egg and spoon race right through to bagging the smartest girl.  Chris heard his mother’s address given out and the names of those he had considered to be his friends listed.  None of the jurors showed a flicker of recognition and so six of the eighteen were dismissed.  As they filed out Chris looked up to the public gallery.  His mother’s best friend, Gina had positioned herself behind Simon since he last stole a peek.  Uncle Robbie wasn’t there, although he’d written, urging him on as if it were a ball game, coaching from the safety of a different time zone.  Simon slumped in his seat, thumb and forefinger rubbing at his chin, then he pulled himself upright and rustled up an encouraging smile, like the one his Dad used to give him on sports day.  It hollowed him out.

A blanket of readiness settled on the court room.  Chris’s nemesis was on his feet again, nodding to his junior, tugging at his waistcoat, pausing for effect.  Chris picked at his thrice bitten nails and tried to remember the advice of his own counsel, Ushma.  She had urged him to demonstrate something.  Innocence?  No.  Remorse?  Yes, that must be it.

“Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury,” began Bradley-Evans. “On Friday 18th October last, a man known only to us as Daniel was brutally murdered.  Let us not focus on the status of this unidentified man.  It is perhaps the saddest part of this case that the victim’s true identity remains a mystery.  It is a great source of disappointment for the police, who have worked tirelessly in this matter, that they have been unable to account for him.  I know that it will be difficult not to make assumptions about who he may or may not have been, but I urge you to put those thoughts from your mind.  The fact of the matter is that he was an innocent victim of a callous murder.  As such he is entitled to the full weight of the law, regardless of whomsoever he may be.” 

Despite Ushma’s warning, nothing had prepared Chris for the intolerable burden of listening to this bullshit.  Bradley-Evans spoke with a strength of feeling, a certainty which sent a shudder of panic through him.  He thrust his hands between his legs, clenching his thighs.  Don’t say anything.  Don’t smile or look angry or show any kind of emotion.  But sweat had broken out across his face now.  He must look guilty as sin.  It was all happening too quickly.  The bastard wouldn’t shut up.

“Over the coming days the Crown will seek to prove that Daniel was lured to the defendant’s mother’s house, subjected to degrading acts and killed in cold blood.  Mrs Nicholson, the defendant’s estranged mother, was left to the horrifying discovery of a dead body in her own house.  The defendant then attempted to evade the police who were forced to pursue him over the length and breadth of the country.  These are not the actions of a man who acted in self-defence as he will claim, they are the actions of a man who knew he was guilty.”

Chris shifted his eyes to Ushma who looked unflustered, perhaps even a little bored.  Her wig looked faintly ridiculous perched above her untameable thick black hair; her glasses sat at the end of her nose ready to be pulled off in that way she had.  On her last visit to him in Belmarsh she had cautioned him to, “look meek and mild mannered at all times and above all penitent.”  That was the word.  He remembered it now.  “The jury need to see it oozing from you.  Some of them will continually sneak a look, try to interpret your reactions to what’s being said, others will avoid eye contact at all cost.  Try not to get sucked down the rabbit hole of guessing what they are thinking – it won’t help.  Look at the judge if you don’t know what else to do.  Focus entirely on how you are coming across.  Hold fast to your version of events.  To the truth.”

Bradley-Evans was still droning on, patiently describing events for the jury with a hint of relish.  It was as if he were talking about someone else.  Mr Nicholson, the central player in a far-fetched drama.  Despite Ushma’s advice, Chris looked to the jury but saw only a wall of indistinguishable faces, twelve pairs of eyes impossible to separate one from another.  They sat in earnest silence, still blinking with the shock of a real-life murder, caught in the headlights of Bradley-Evans and his smooth fiction.  Chris wanted to punch him, right on his aquiline nose and watch the blood trickle onto his bright white oh-so-pure shirt. 

But on he went, speaking calmly of train journeys and dates, of telephone calls and ambulances.  It sounded even more like someone else’s story.  From his goldfish bowl of bullet proof glass Chris stared at the judge, a slight figure dwarfed by the high-backed chair he sat in.  His fingers moved swiftly as he typed into his silver laptop making his own sense of the sequence of events.  Looking at him didn’t help either and so Chris diverted his attention back up to Simon who was staring down at Bradley-Evans, hanging on his every word.  Even he looked convinced.  Now the jury were being invited to look at the bundles they had been given by the usher.  Chris had been provided with his own copies so that he could see the evidence upon which judgement would be made.  Great oversized pages of maps and telephone logs.  Endless photographs.  His childhood bedroom, Daniel’s body photoshopped out and replaced with a big black empty space.  Erased to protect the sensitivities of the innocent.  Blood spatters on walls were numbered and marked.  A photograph showed a pile of broken glass swept into a corner.  These were dots to be connected, an incontrovertible truth to be uncovered.  And then he heard the words, distinct from all the others, chilling in their brevity.

“The crown calls Mrs Hannah Nicholson.”

So soon?  Wait everybody, wait.  There was rustling and coughing.  His mother walked in head held high.  His own head was shaking.  To and fro.  To and fro.  He couldn’t stop it.  Please, no.  Not yet.  Just wait a little longer.

 

The court room was crowded.  Too hot.  Too many eyes on her.  Hannah’s voice faltered at the familiar words of affirmation, the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  She looked towards the dock.  He wore a button-down collar and a V-neck that she had asked Simon to buy for him, unconvincingly conventional.  His hair was brushed back, his beard neatly trimmed, but despite his best efforts he looked sickly and sallow.  He was fidgeting with his hands but he held her eyes briefly, before darting his attention up to the public gallery, then back to the judge.  Restless.  It didn’t look good.

“Mrs Nicholson,” began Bradley-Evans. “I appreciate how difficult this is for you …”

His voice faded away.  She didn’t need to hear the question in order confirm her whereabouts on the afternoon of Friday 18th October last.  She saw the thrill ripple through the jury.  They must have misheard.  A barrister?  Working in this building?

Her voice echoed inside her skull while she explained that she had left court at around four o’clock on the day in question.  She was able to recall the precise level of precipitation, fine and misty.  Later, it was raining stair rods, later when she vomited in the geraniums.  But when she had left the train at St Albans, it was barely wet enough for her fuchsia pink umbrella.  She had dithered between the third and fourth level of the car park unsure where she had parked the previous morning, but she didn’t tell him that.  His questions continued, tight and specific, as agreed. 

“And what did you notice when you arrived at the house?”

She carefully described the way the key had resisted in the lock, the failed alarm, her slow and gradual realisation that things were out of place.  The broken window in the utility room had escaped her notice, she explained.  Then she told him about the biscuit tin.  She remembered the dull thud of recognition.  Christopher, home again.  She recalled the sense of portent lurking behind his bedroom door, an ominous feeling, Shakespearian in scale.  But she said nothing of these things.  She told him only what she had found and not found, seen and not seen, understood and not understood.  She told him only facts.

Bradley-Evans nodded, content with her answers.  Then there was a hiatus.  She reached for her water, caught Lesley’s eye and forced a smile in her direction.  Pocock moved to one of the computers and searched out the recording of the call she had made that night to the emergency services.  After a false start her abrupt and affronted voice ricocheted around the court.

“I’ve been burgled.”

“How long ago did this take place?”

“Well, I don’t know exactly.  I left home at seven fifteen yesterday morning and I’ve just come back.”

“Are you in any kind of danger madam?”

“Danger?”

“Are you satisfied that there isn’t someone still at the property?”

“Yes … well, I mean I haven’t checked every room.”

“Don’t put yourself at risk madam.  We’ll send someone out as soon as possible.”

“Yes.  Right.  Good.  I am on my own you know.”

The woman had needled her, made her feel vulnerable, then as now.  She remembered the slip of the handset in her shaking hand, the vomit already rising in her throat, or was that afterwards?  There had been a nick in the wood of her desk.  She saw it now, revealing the light oak beneath the dark.  Chris stared at her from the dock, glowering in astonishment.  What had he expected her to do?  She looked at her hands, blue veins raised underneath thinning skin – her mother’s bulging knuckles.

The recording finished and Bradley-Evans framed another question, but her attention was still held by the dent in the wood.  Overwhelmingly, she wanted to know what had caused the damage.  Then she remembered the red light blinking at her from the answerphone.  The blank message she had told no one about at the time.  It had slipped her mind then and she let it slip away again now.

“Mrs Nicholson?  Mrs Nicholson?”

“Yes?  I’m sorry.  Could you repeat the question?”

“When you attempted to open the door of your son’s room- -”

“Old room.  His old room.”

“Yes, of course.  My mistake.”

“When you pushed the door of your son’s old room, did it open easily?”

“Up to a point but then, no.  There was clearly something wedged up against it.”

“Would it be fair to say that you had to use force to open it?”

“Yes.  Although I didn’t push it very far.  I knew what was on the other side.”

“You knew?”

“Yes.  There was a stench.”

“A stench?”

“Of death.”

“I see.  And can you describe that stench to the jury?”

“Blood.  Shit …” and then she stupidly added, “Fear.” 

“And did you see any part of the body?”

“No.  I peered through the gap in the door and saw a blood-soaked trainer.  I immediately ran down the stairs and out of the front door.”

Bradley-Evans didn’t ask about whether she had been sick.  He didn’t ask about the rain lashing at her skin through her blouse, trammelling down her cleavage, dripping from her nose.  She had thrown off her cardigan earlier and flung it on the bannister because the house was so hot.  Was that relevant?  She had assumed the error was hers; it was a new boiler and she still hadn’t fathomed its settings.  She wanted to explain, but he had moved on.

“How long had you and your son been estranged, Mrs Nicholson?”

No …. No .... No.  There was more to say about the night itself.  Details about a raided larder, her missing jewellery and the stolen money.  Facts that were unarguable and that he had skated over.  He wasn’t playing fair.  The jury needed to understand that she had been the victim of a co-ordinated attack and so had her son.


 

Frogsbone by Zoe Fowler

Chapter One

1908, Ellis Island.

The ferry jostles the landing wall; twisting and resisting the ropes that fasten her to the dock. Morning rain bites my skin as I lean forward to watch the passengers disembark, a mass of elbows, raised voices and carpet bags. Already Ellis Island is flooded with people surging towards the tall brick buildings, more people than I can count. Why did I not realize there would be so many? Why did I not plan more carefully for how these moments might go?

I watch the crook-backed woman who smells of old bread and newsprint pull a black shawl over her head to cover the scabs scattered among the greasy rats’ tails of her hair. I watch a cluster of women hush and tush the boy in their midst, the same young boy I saw carried from his cabin this morning with pale cheeks and eyes as a dull as a snow-bound sky. The oldest of these women, her apron stretched wide over layered skirts and her foreign words as exotic as her head-dress, leans forward now and pinches the boy’s cheeks. He cries out and his face turns red.

Will that be disguise enough? Will the officials read his tears as temper rather than sickness and let him through? I watch plump-hipped Irish Rosie step off the gangplank. She turns and smiles, lifts one hand in my direction and walks away. We have shared the same ship’s cabin these past five nights and I have watched her body grow heavy with the prospect of birth. This morning she bound her stomach with a length of graying bandage and smoothed her skirt flat. All these people have made plans for this moment and I have not. Perhaps I believed the Atlantic waters would wash the scars from my skin. For days I stood on deck and turned my face to meet the salt spray sting of the upset sea, but my scars remain tight as a shroud across my left cheek.

Our stewardess warned me that inside Ellis Island’s red brick buildings are doctors who will stop me when they see my face. Doctors who might, despite the distance I have come, turn me away and make me find my own way home. I don’t want to board another ship and to be plunged through the waves while the sun sets behind me. I don’t want to arrive back in England and have to wander those strange Liverpool streets, searching for a train which will haul me back to the flat familiarity of the Lincolnshire fens. I have come so close to where I imagine Jem might be and I can’t bear the thought of distance stretching between us once more. There have been moments on this crossing when I have sensed his arms around me, close as a shadow, and felt the rough scratch of his stubbled cheek against mine. Now a ferryman lightly touches my shoulder and I long for Jem’s touch instead.

“Miss,” he says, “miss, you need to step down ‘ere now, miss.”

When I turn, he recoils at the sight of my face.

I thought it was the knowledge of my story which shocked people most. I’ve spent all of my seventeen years of life in the village of Harton and my family have been there for generations more. I’ve lived among people whose fathers, brothers and sons have plowed fields alongside my father, whose mothers, wives and sisters have bought beans and cloth from the same stores my family have always used, and whose children once sat alongside me in the schoolhouse. I was one of them and then my face was spoiled. After that they spoke more slowly when they wished me a good day and their smiles looked starched. I thought it would be different with strangers who didn’t know my story, but it seems even strangers’ eyes slip from my face and pity coats their tongues. Jem is the only one who didn’t avert his eyes. I am certain he is here, in this city whose buildings stab at the sky; he is here and I am close to finding him and the doctors might turn me away.

I straighten my hat and brush the raindrops from my shoulders. I tweak the finger ends of my gloves so that the cotton lays snug, and lift my bag against my hip. When I step onto the cobbles, the ground is restless beneath my feet.

My grandfather used to boast that I was never afraid. He claimed a seam of iron ran through my soul. There was one story he never tired of telling. He would carefully light his pipe, wait until his baccy was burning how he liked, then settle back in his chair and let the words come. ‘Have I ever told ye how t’bairn beat t’ewe?’ he would ask. The story’s beginning. A sheep and a child. He would tell how he watched me try to drive one of the sheep towards the stockyard where the animals were penned in winter. The ewe was elderly and lame, good for one more lambing perhaps but growing belligerent and wily with age. I was little more than a toddler — ‘a fair match,’ my grandfather would explain, ‘their eyes on the same level.’ The ewe spied a patch of grass to the side of the gate and I tried to block her route, flapping my skirts and shouting. ‘Afterabit,’ my grandfather would say, ‘the nipper comes o’er to me an’ says, “Hath-tha a stick, granda?” So I gies her me walking cane.’ I tottered back to the yard, my head not yet as high as the walking stick’s handle, and stood in front of the sheep. This time the ewe lowered her head, as though to butt me from her path. ‘Well, t’bairn’d gi’en ‘er fair warning an-all,’ my grandfather would chuckle, leaning back in his armchair and stretching his legs in front of him, ‘So then she lifted that stick with both hands.’ At this point in the story, he would reach for his walking stick and brandish it high so that its end just missed the dining room rafters. ‘And she clouted sheep on its ‘ed. Sheep ran back into the flock and t’bairn toppled back’ards in mud wi’ t’force of lifting yon stick, but she’d the biggest smile on ‘er face.’ My grandfather would laugh out loud at the story’s ending. ‘Not frit of owt,’ he would proclaim with pride, ‘Ar Susanna’s not frit of owt.’

But I’m frightened now; I’m frit now, granda.

I am caught in the tide of people who swell up the stairs towards the registration hall. The elbow of a man to my left strikes my breast but he does not pause, does not seem to notice. A dark-eyed woman stumbles on the step beneath mine and catches her balance by grabbing my shoulder. I smell the foreignness of her breath as she murmurs words I do not know. Each year, as autumn winds blew the threat of winter across our fields, we’d pen the sheep and they’d pack close together, as fearful and alarmed as the people who surround me now. I can feel that fear growing, dark as earth, in the spaces between my ribs. But I’m not a sheep, I’m the girl from my grandfather’s favorite story. I gather together all the courage I have left and my stays creak as I inhale. I’ll flatten this fear and stamp it small within me. I lift my head, push out my chin and step into the registration hall.

Doctors in blue uniforms with polished gold buttons scrutinize each of us in turn. One brusquely hooks back my eyelids, presses his stethoscope to my chest and back, studies my cheek, and chalks the letter F on my coat. His movements are mechanical and he shows no shock at the sight of my cheek. Even if he had tried to speak, I doubt I could have heard him above this multitude of voices. I move forwards, meaning to follow everyone else, but the doctor gestures me towards a small holding pen surrounded by a wire fence.

I take a seat alongside a crying woman, she does not lift her face or seek to wipe away her tears. Perhaps she started crying when the ferry docked, or perhaps these tears have fallen all through her voyage. Our bodies are so close I can feel the warmth radiate from her and I can feel her sobs stutter deep within her. What comfort can I give? This past week, I have seen thincheeked mothers squirrel food from the ship’s table into the folds of their clothing, their eyes haunted by fears of future famines, and bent-backed narrow-shouldered men staggering beneath the weight of trunks. I have listened to the loss of loves people once thought were theirs, the loss of Gods they thought they knew, and the loss of stories they once claimed as their own. I have watched and I have listened and I have wondered if kindness, like this woman’s tears, might one day run dry. Not knowing what else to do, I press a handkerchief into her hand. It has Eleanor Morton’s initials embroidered in one corner and I suspect neither Eleanor nor myself want that reminder now.

I had thought myself so clever to have found a way to come to New York. A companion to Reverend Morton’s young wife. It was through my chapel that I heard rumors that Eleanor would be traveling to her husband’s new ministry in America and this was only days after I had heard that Jem had been hired to accompany two horses to New York. A serendipitous collection of hearsay. I begged our minister to commend me to Reverend Morton and the reverend’s letter arrived sooner than I had even dared hope. Such cunning on my part, I thought, as I read the thick wad of scrawled pages and ink blots. The first page detailed his regrets over the unpredictable mortality of the companion he would have preferred to accompany his wife to America. He was barely able to conceal his irritation that she had seen fit to die only two months before they were due to travel. There followed a dozen pages detailing his expectations of my employment — he expected me to make sure his wife ate a wholesome, hearty and light diet of only the freshest of foods, I should prompt her to rise early after a good night’s sleep of at least nine and a half hours, ensure she was dressed in a winter coat and several scarves each time we ventured outside, and engage her with a little sewing or read aloud to her from the wholesome literature he was certain the ship’s library would contain. It was imperative, he said and underlined the word with such force that his pen nib tore the page, that Eleanor should not read recent fiction by new-fangled female authors who were set on titilating and distracting young women from the moral reflections of their everyday lives. It seemed, from his letter, that I was to be responsible therefore for protecting his wife from temptation, cold winds and constipation.

In the final page of his letter, Reverend Morton noted that the immigration doctors might stop me because they would need evidence that the scars on my face were not indicative of “madness, badness, or general retardation.” In an aside, barely contained within fatly curling parentheses, he explained he had not required such proof himself because my village minister had vouched for my good character and robust health and he himself had prayed vigorously that he was right to trust that good man’s commendation. Reverend Morton also noted that, although not able to visualize the true extent of my disfigurement, he trusted that it meant I was better prepared than most to deter any rascals, ruffians or not-so-good types from bothering his angel wife.

I would have been offended by the tone of his words if I had thought of him as my actual employer, but I saw him only as providing an opportunity. I had already decided I would escort Eleanor as far as New York City and then go and find Jem. But, at the start of the voyage, I tried to be good. As the Mauretania steamed away from the Liverpool docks, we took our sewing to the Ladies’ Lounge and I attempted to make edifying conversation. Had she read Pilgrim’s Progress, I asked? Did she like kittens? Eleanor flitted from seat to seat, throwing herself into each chair, pleating her skirts with practiced hands and adjusting the tortoiseshell combs in her hair so that, apparently accidentally, several more chestnut curls would spill down and frame her face. Claiming anxiety about being at sea, she bit at her lips until the contrast between her reddened pout, wide blue eyes and slightly, artfully, disheveled hair was, I suspect, just as striking as Eleanor hoped. “I need to capture my thoughts,” she said with a tinkling laugh, but seemed more set on capturing admiring glances from the gentlemen who congregated by the lounge doors. That first day at sea she worked very hard at perfecting the pose of ‘lady on transatlantic crossing’.

Our dislike was mutual and almost immediate. I had little to say on the subjects of other travelers’ hairstyles, clothing and countenance, and Eleanor had little to say on anything else. To be honest, I would have preferred to travel in the company of evil angels rather than spend another moment with that pretty, petulant, endlessly fidgeting young woman and, in that at least, fortune was kind. The sea, which had bucked and reared like an unbroken colt on the first day of our crossing, was suddenly angered by howling winds. Green walls of water smashed over our bow and even the crew exclaimed they had never known a crossing like this. I spent my days staggering from place to place, ricocheting between thickly papered walls as the ship lurched and protested. Eleanor took to her bed and then, as we neared the coast of Nova Scotia, she appeared in the dining room leaning on a stranger’s arm. Her pale cheeks accentuated the fragility of her beauty and her eyes were hard as marbles. He was tall, with elaborate shining mustaches. As I moved towards her, she spoke softly in his ear and he proclaimed in a loud voice that there seemed to be some grave misunderstanding. He asked the steward to direct me towards the steerage dining hall as my services were no longer needed. I had not realized that, on board a ship, a gentleman — if we are to call him that — need offer no explanation for dismissing a person from another’s employ. His smile was slick as sweat as I was escorted from that room and I have not seen Eleanor since.

In truth, I am grateful that I no longer need to engage in deception. Each plan I had made to escape my service to Reverend Morton and his wife had seemed flimsy, even when I was at my most optimistic. I would claim to need to use the lavatory, I thought, and make a hasty exit through an open window, or I would pretend to sleepwalk during the night; but I wasn’t sure how many lavatories in New York City would have windows large enough for me to pull myself through and I worried that a sleepwalker would be rapidly apprehended and returned to her bed. Now such subterfuge is not necessary. However, this solution is also not ideal. Had I been with Eleanor, we would have been inspected by doctors on board the ship and I suspect their treatment would have been kinder than that which is offered to steerage passengers. I am sitting in a wire pen in a cavernous hall with a woman who weeps and it seems no-one is in a hurry to address my case.

The air is thick and fetid, growing warmer with each new group of people who enter this hall. Hundreds of people, thousands. The cathedral height of the ceilings fails to lessen the dense fug of damp woolen coats and the onion-sweetness of unwashed bodies. I have laid my coat across my lap and my fingers search for the weight of the four gold sovereigns I stitched into its hem last night and the slight, hard nub of a silver thimble. Eleanor left me with nothing, so I slipped into her room after my dismissal and took what I could. The gold wedding ring I found on her washstand now hangs on a chain around my neck, nestled close to the silver cross which has been mine since birth.

“Stand, please.”

A woman, large as thunder, has entered our pen.

“Mrs. Beecham,” she says with a nod towards the weeping woman, “Miss Hall.” She looks directly at me with no sign of consternation at what she sees. “I am Miss Maud Mosher and you have both been detained pending assessment of your fitness for immigration.”

She is colossal, magnificent. Black pleats angle out from her waist like a forest of branches and her starched white apron could be used to cover several beds.

“This does not mean you have failed in your application. It means you are to be detained until a more thorough assessment of your fitness has been conducted. During this time you will reside here on Ellis Island.”

The woman beside me sobs more loudly. Her face shines with snot and tears.

“Mrs Beecham,” says Miss Mosher, pulling a handkerchief from her apron pocket which is large as a pillow case and handing it to the weeping woman. Perhaps people will continue giving her handkerchiefs until she her tears have dried. A magician’s trick of handkerchiefs, handkerchiefs like bunting stretched across the Atlantic. I can imagine them blowing in the wind.

“This is neither the time nor the place to permit one’s descent into a slough of despond. Fortitude and courage, my dear.”

Miss Mosher then explains we are to follow her to a dormitory where we will be housed. Meals, she says, will be provided by the New York authorities. Good meals, she adds and stares with intent at the sobbing woman’s narrow waist and shoulders.

“Perhaps you have evidence or materials to support your petition for immigration,” she says, standing in the doorway to the metal pen. “You may provide me with these at any time, but there is, of course, no time like the present.”

I bend forwards from my waist, careful to move with strength and purpose in case Miss Mosher is secretly evaluating such things. I reach into the side pocket of my bag and pull out Doctor Edmunds’ letter. The shape of his writing is achingly familiar, I have known him forever. He attended my occasional childhood illnesses, my mother’s long litany of lost pregnancies, and the sorrows that came thereafter. He ministered to my face and took care of my grandfather throughout his final illness, I heard him stepping softly between our rooms in leather-soled shoes. When he wrote this letter, he advised me not to share it with the rag-tag-and-bobtail bunch of officious nobodies who would accost me when I first arrived on America’s shores and who were, he said, no better than they might be. This was a letter intended to be given to a person whose authority I trusted and whose help I needed.

I look at Miss Mosher’s feet, they are large as any man’s. I look at the heft of flesh folding over her waistband and stretching the fabric of her apron. I look at the breadth of her arms which are packed tight into sleeves whose creases are straight and sharp as razors. I look at the stern lines above the soft rolls of her chin and I see the kindness in her eyes.


 

PIG by Matilde Pratesi

PART ONE

Chapter One

London – April, 2019

The moment I hear the clunk of the lock I spring into action, lifting my bag from under the counter and grabbing the shutter keys. I need to be out of here by 18.15 at the latest or there’s no way I’ll be home by 18.30. I check my phone and see that it’s already 18.17. This is not good, not good at all.

I've been behind all day. It's not the pigs' fault, but I was thinking of them, again, as I walked into work this morning. I don’t eat pigs. If everyone knew how truly amazing pigs were, they wouldn’t eat them either. I wonder if people have heard that pigs are smarter than a three-year-old. And if they have, does that mean they could eat a toddler, too?

When I tell someone that human flesh smells just like bacon when it burns, it doesn’t seem to put them off. They just give me a strange look and keep eating their sandwich.

First thing this morning, from behind the counter at the bookshop, I looked up to see Ollie walking in. I eyed the paper cup he was holding in both hands.

‘Hot choc. I need the extra calories this morning,’ he said, swaying a little before sitting next to me. Ollie is tall and thin. He’s been in London for a few years but is originally from what he describes as a “pointless village” in South Wales. He doesn’t have an opinion on Welsh pigs—even though I’ve repeatedly told him they’re nearly extinct—and is fed up with talking about them. Ollie only wears tops with writing on them. Today his t-shirt reads ‘…forever?’ on the front, while large red letters on the back of his jacket spell out: ‘Rebels Motorcycle Club’. He doesn’t own a motorcycle.

When Ollie collapsed further into his chair, I checked my watch.

‘Today is all about self-care,’ he whispered, folding his body across the wooden countertop.

‘Why?’ I asked.

He told me he got lost twice last night trying to get home after locking up the shop. He must have taken a wrong turn because he ended up in front of Twickenham Stadium which is more than a mile away from where he lives.

‘Ollie,’ I said, ‘pigs can remember directions and find their way home from very far away. Their sense of direction is better than yours.’ Then I laughed.

He looked right at me as a deep frown creased his forehead. Then he got up, walked over to the Travel section, and started loading books onto the shelves.

I could hear the thud each volume made as they landed on the polished oak, even when I was in another section of the shop. It’s not a big place and the ceilings are low because people used to be shorter back when it was built, so every noise travels around like mad. But the walls are thick enough to keep all outside noises from the nearby high street to a low hum, making you feel like you’re in a cave all day, which I like.

The bookshop is in a very, very old building that has been on Church Alley for centuries. From the outside it’s rickety: the doorway leans slightly to the left and is shorter than the others on the street. I always think that the black beams and powdery white walls of its front and the bulky shape of its square windows make it look like a German layered cake.

Inside, it smells like dust, glue, and paper. The once-red rugs on the floor are bleached pink by faint sunlight, and threadbare from consistent walking, so that you can see the outline of the floorboards. There are five small rooms in the shop, connected by dark wooden arches, and the ceilings are low. The shop is packed with books.

The children’s book area is at the back, in the largest room, and there are old velvet armchairs in the middle, leaking stuffing. I feel safe and calm in the children’s area, as if the outside world isn’t quite real.

While Ollie stacked the shelves, I stood by the till, and watched a pencil roll off the counter onto the carpeted floor, then disappear behind a pile of books waiting to be priced up. I crouched down low and rolled it carefully back towards me with the tip of my index finger. Once it was in my grip, I took a moment to enjoy the feeling of the smooth, shiny veneer pressed against my skin. It was soothing. I got an irresistible urge to find out what noise it would make if I tapped its end onto the worn patch in the carpet. I tried it but it wasn’t great, more of a soft pft. I started tapping it harder and faster and eventually got a better…

 ‘What…erm…what are you doing?’ Ollie was looking at me, his arms crossed so high they were almost hiding the writing on his t-shirt.

‘Something got stuck.’

I got up and brushed the dust off my trousers,

‘So, what do you think?’ he asked,

‘About what?

‘Should I shave my moustache?’

I leaned in closer to the space between Ollie’s mouth and nose. I saw a shadow that looked like a faint smudge of ink.

‘No, keep it.’

A customer walked in making the bell on top of the door ring. He was a middle-aged man wearing a floppy rain hat and holding a crumpled copy of the New Scientist. Ollie and I exchanged a knowing look before I went over to the travel department to continue restocking. About half of the customers that come into the shop behave in the same way. They mostly arrive around mid-morning and walk around from shelf to shelf. They pick up the books, look at the covers and take the time to read all the blurbs.

After half an hour or so of this ritual, they select one and hold it in their hand, flip between the front cover and the back and maybe read the first page or somewhere in the middle.

Then they head over to one of the armchairs we have in the back of the shop, settle in as if they’re in their own living room and start reading. For an hour, two hours, three. I’ve had to ask many of them to leave at closing time and every time it’s like you’ve shaken them awake from a deep sleep. They look at you blankly for a second or so, apologise, then get up slowly and leave. They never put the book back and they never, ever, buy it. Ollie says they get it online instead, for half the price and with next-day delivery.

While I put away the new stock into each section, Ollie tapped his fingers at lightning speed across the keypad of his phone. His elbows were planted onto the flat wood surface of the counter and his long fringe got in his eyes when he tilted his head down to read the screen.

I imagined he was speaking to Rafael about their plans for the evening.

Rafael and Ollie met in the shop a while ago and now they spend all of their time together.

Before Ollie started working here, I’d spoken to Rafael maybe once or twice, helping him find obscure Polish poetry books. After the two of them got talking a few times, he started waiting to be served by Ollie even when he was busy talking to another customer and I was free. They must like a lot of the same books because they never seem to run out of things to talk about.

One day, I saw Rafael waiting for Ollie across the road at closing time, that’s when I realised they had been hanging out outside the shop too. They spend a lot of time going to gigs and to the cinema, and Rafael is now pretty much the main topic of Ollie’s daily stories. It never takes very long for those stories to come out as soon as we’re alone in the shop.

‘Cup of tea?’ he asked from inside the tiny staff kitchen.

Before I could reply I heard the thud of two cups on the hard plastic tabletop and the liquid gurgle of the kettle.

We leaned on the wall facing each other, our hands gripping the cup handles tight and his voice began filling up the room once more.

‘Don’t get me wrong Vale, I don’t care about the money stuff, it’s not like I’m greedy. But it would be nice if sometimes he paid for something, the drinks, the tickets. I’ve told him, I said: “Let’s try the new place up the road sometime. The one with the big chandeliers near the roundabout?”, and you know what he said to me? He said: “That one? Looks pretentious.” Pretentious? It’s not pretentious he’s worried about, I know it, it’s the bill. He knows I won’t pay the whole thing and he can’t get away with it if it’s a proper place instead of the usual pub. Well, I like the pub as much as the next person, but it would be nice to go to a place with people our age sometimes and not always be surrounded by old farts, you know?’

I looked at my watch, aware of the hours and minutes left until closing time. I couldn’t be late home again.

‘Yeah.’

‘He says they’re “real people”, Vale. Well, what am I? Am I not a real person?’

‘You are real, Ollie.’

‘Exactly. I’m real too.’

He took a sip of his tea, deep in thought.

I never know what to answer when he asks me these kinds of questions. So, I mostly either nod or say “yes”, “no”, or “of course”. But sometimes I can guess the answer right away, like in that case. He is definitely a real person, so it was easy.

Ollie and Rafael were going out to see a band, and he already had his coat on when the clock got to six. He sometimes waits around for me to finish my tasks and lock up, but he didn’t this time.

‘Do you mind if I go? He really hates it when we’re late.’ He seemed unable to stay still.

‘No that’s fine. Have fun. Don’t do drugs,’ I mumbled, straightening the paperwork on the counter into neat piles. I felt bolts of electric energy shooting through my fingers. He needed to leave now so I could go.

‘Yeah, okay, MUM, thanks. Ha. See you later.’

And he was out of the door.

 

But now, I’m running late. I’ve timed the journey a hundred times over and it’s never less than fifteen minutes. My leg muscles contract from the adrenaline shooting through my body. I bring the shutter down so fast it slams onto the ground. A group of men outside the pub over the road turn away from their pints to look at me.

18.20. No, no, no, no. My feet skip over the cobbles, I angle my body forward and hold my bag against my side to be more aerodynamic against the breeze. I jog past the gift shop, the Fox and Hounds, the ladies’ hairdressers, and the children’s clothing shop. I hate getting through the door with my chest burning and sweat dripping down my face but there’s no time to slow down.

I reach the big roundabout where rush hour is in full swing. Hundreds of cars crawl up and down the streets like prisoners in a chain gang and the traffic lights seem to switch slower than usual. As I rush towards the zebra crossing, images rush into my brain: getting hit and dragged under a car. My head smashing onto the rough asphalt.

The images are so complete in my head that I can almost feel the weight of the wheels crashing my bones. ‘Come on, come on, come on, come on…’ I say under my breath as I hurry along the pavement. I check my watch, 18.31. Oh no.

I can see our street in the distance, the red door, the front garden, the black and green bins. I check again, 18.35. Shit.

I grab my keys from the bag and fumble at the front door, I open as the clock in the entrance shows 18.37. Shiiiiit.

I drop my bag onto the polished wooden floor and shout, ‘I’m here. I’m here. Sorry! A customer. He just wouldn’t leave. I had to push him out of the door and…’

The house is quiet.

I look in the living room but it’s empty. No time to check every room, I run upstairs, nearly tripping onto the first few steps and dash into the bathroom. I push the plughole down hard and turn both taps out as far as they’ll go, then, once a little bit of water has begun to fill the bath, I check for temperature. It must not be too hot but can’t be too cold either. I grab the large sponge and the small one, the comb and the liquid soap and line each of them up along the edge of the tub.

I sit on a stool by the side, take a deep breath and wait. My hands folded in my lap, my eyes fixed on the door, I list pig breeds under my breath:

‘Aksai Black Pied, American Yorkshire, Angeln Saddleback, Ankamali, Appalachian English…’

I can hear footsteps coming up the stairs, slow and deliberate, wood creaking underfoot.

‘Arapawa Island, Auckland Island, Australian Yorkshire, B-B-Babi Kampung…’

The steps get closer. I grip the edge of the stool I’m sitting on. My hands start to tingle the moment she steps into the bathroom.

Her long hair is down, and she is wearing a towelling robe knotted tightly at the waist. The contrast between the deep black of her hair and the white of the robe reminds me of tree roots in the snow. I feel dizzy. Her feet are bare, her toenails painted blood red.

‘I’m sorry. I’m late. I know I…’ I blurt out, before I realise my hands have risen and I’m holding them up as if praying to the Virgin Mary.

‘It’s okay.’ She closes the door behind her and begins to take off her robe, undoing the knot with slow movements.

‘Clara. Please, I’ll make it up to you I promise. You know I will.’ I lower my hands—she can’t stand it when I’m pathetic. I sit on them and wait for a sign. She’s still not looking at me.

‘Vale, it’s okay. You were busy. Had better to do, no?’ She hangs up the robe onto the hook and dips her toe in. She shivers out loud, pauses for a second then lowers herself into the water with a sigh.

‘Is it too cold?’ I feel sweat forming on my temples. I turn the hot water back on and start swirling the flow around, trying to mix the new water in faster. ‘It’s not that I was busy, there was a customer who just wouldn’t make his mind up, I couldn’t kick him out, I…I…’

‘Leave it.’ She shifts her weight around until she finds a comfortable position, then leans forward, tying her hair up into a bun. ‘I’m so tired today. I really don’t want to end up catching a cold sitting in this for too long.’

 I dip the large sponge into the water, squeeze a big dollop of soap onto it and bring it up to a thick lather with my hands. I move the stool closer and start rubbing her back with the sponge, leaving her skin flushed. I rub her arms, neck, and shoulders, careful not to get soap into her hair. I tap her forearm lightly as a signal and she gets up, facing away from me, her arms long and heavy down her side. I rub her legs, her lower back, her bum and all the way down to her knees just above where the water laps.             Another tap, and she turns around, facing me but still not looking in my direction. Instead, her head is turned towards the window, she seems to be concentrating hard on a cluster of clouds high up above us. Normally, during bath time, we chat, and she tells me about her day; the programmes she’s watched on TV, and what the cats have been up to outside the windows. Today she doesn’t seem in the mood, and I know that initiating won’t help, she will just ignore me. Maybe it’s true that she’s tired… It could just be that.

We are in complete silence, and I can feel my unease grow with each movement of my hands. This is not going well. I shouldn’t have been late. I was doing so well in the last month. I was even early a couple of times, and then we laughed throughout bath time.

Laughed! It’s so hard to believe right now when the only noise I can hear is the dripping of the taps.

I clean her stomach, her calves, her knees, her legs, and begin rising up between her thighs. As I get further up, she speaks.

‘Enough. I’m clean. You’ll get my skin off with that thing if you keep going.’

She swings one leg over the bath, then the other.

‘I’m going to have a lie-down. Let’s eat in half an hour,’ she says, putting the robe back on and tying the belt into a tidy bow. She opens the door and I watch her back disappear around the corner as her body leaves a Clara-shaped hole into the steam.

I look at the doorway for a moment, my head bursting with thoughts. I hold my left hand into my right and dig my nails into the skin of my wrist, hard. I press my flushed cheek on the cold ceramic wall and close my eyes.

My head is still for a moment, then I continue:

‘Ba Xuyen, Bantu, Basque, Bazna, Beijing Black, Belarus Black Pied, Belgian Landrace…’


 

Silent as a Shade by Natalie Baker

Prologue

Orp

It’s gone six and a waxing crescent is ghostlike, barely visible. I watch it slip between sheets of light. Turning on the radio transmitter, I listen as ships talk to each other. They don’t know I’m there in the watch room eavesdropping, but I’m always there and never a second late. Waiting for things to happen as everyone else sleeps.

Despite it being late September, the air is heavy with the promise of a heatwave. Clear skies, calm seas. I can’t stomach hot weather. It turns on me making my hands and feet swell. When the sun is at its highest point, I’ll close the blinds and wear ear plugs to block out unwelcome sounds – children playing on the beach, the jingle jangle as another ice cream van passes through. I like the ones that mould to the shape of my ear holes. I tried BlueTac once, but the ball got itself lost in my ear canal. Sometimes I can feel it rattling about like a piece of wreckage.

I write exceptionally clear in the weather log and shift my focus to the cliffs. Using my telescope I follow the serrated edge and settle on a nest of tar-coloured razorbills. Their bodies are black scored with white like blood against snow. But it’s the guillemots I’m there for. I want to see the young murres, wings extended like primitive parachutes, as they fling their bodies off the cliff face and land, alive or dead. But in searching for the guillemots, I see something else.

 

The Peterson boy

I look down at the waves bloated with life. Sea spume fizzes like sherbet. I think of my mother. I think of sherbet lemons, remembering how she used to draw out the sugary powder before crunching the hard shell with her molars. The shards would score her gums making them bleed, but like a chain smoker she always went back for more. On her fortieth birthday I bought her dentures as a joke. I remember how the smell, like citrus-scented bleach, always made me gag. That’s how I feel now. Like my stomach is all acid.

Behind me is the statue of Saint Andrew. It’s where trawlers down on their luck go to pray for a better day tomorrow. I brush my fingers along the cold, hard stone. Say a prayer. Gulls pass overhead and as salt air fills my lungs, I jump.

 

PART ONE | AUTUMN

Two years later

Where there is water, there is life. And deep in the forest along the Milk River, among bracken and bramble, among dead wood and fallen trunks, are tufts of common inkcap. A rare, wrinkled peach grows on rotting elm, but nobody sees it buried there in the leaf litter. Willowherb produces its last flush of pink as acorns fall on sodden earth.


Inch

I’ve always been afraid of the water. To be more precise, the sea. It’s something I’ve been taught to fear. Some people find that strange, for I’m the girl who lives on the edge of the island where land and sea meet. But I know that if I stray too far, it could pull me under.

It doesn’t take much to swallow a life. I’ve seen children get swept out too far on bodyboards, inflatable dinghies, rubber rings. Because, like weather, its mood swings. One moment it’s calm and still, the next it’s charged and full of rage. Children return exhausted from the fight to stay alive. And so, to me, the sea remains wholly forbidden.

Yet it’s always there pulling me towards it. Visions of water leak into my dreams and in those hours of somnolence, when all is quiet and still, I find myself in aquatic places. In kelp forests and dark crevices where new life breeds. In many ways it’s an extension of my home. But it’s not my friend.

The sea is strong enough to dissolve me. You know how old fruit that’s thrown on the compost heap starts to break down? It’d be like that, an atrophying of sorts. So I make sure to keep my distance. There are times I’ve come close. Through rippling a wave with the end of a stick or breaking the tide with a skimming pebble. But then Dee’s voice gets into my head – there is much to be feared for the things we can’t see – and that is enough to stop me.

There’s another reason I can’t go anywhere near it. I have a rare skin disorder. It’s why I keep myself bandaged up and slathered in lotion. The lighthouse is where I eat, sleep, bathe, learn, cook. I can’t go to school because it’s far too risky. Children carry all sorts of things and my immune system can’t handle all the mutating viruses that take on many perplexing forms. School is a death trap. The lighthouse keeps me safe.

 

Dee

Orp is upstairs in the watch room. He’s started smoking again. Wafts of tobacco are coming in through the bricks and mortar. The cracks in the ceiling. Barely legible are these deadly whispers. But if you look hard enough and really strain your eyes you can see their ghost.

When the light hits the room I see them take up space and settle like a pair of tired legs on the soft furnishings. I drop my cleaning rag and claw at the air. Open my palm to inspect the ghosts before blowing them away, peppering the floor with what appears to be nothing at all. ‘Another cobweb,’ I tell Inch. ‘They’re everywhere.’ I signal to the ghosts, asking them to leave before she sees. Eventually they disappear leaving their stink behind. ‘Time of year,’ she says, and I wonder if she’s in on the secret too.

We had toast with raspberry jam for breakfast and somehow she’s managed to get it everywhere. Sticky fingers touching her face, jumper, strands of hair. The jammy goo has coagulated her ends and it looks like she’s done a botch job at dip dyeing. The baby thumps. Inch sees it happen. She never misses a thing. ‘Apparently babies kick more when you’re about to go into labour,’ she says, ‘I read it in last month’s issue.’ She’s taken to reading pregnancy magazines and last week told me she’d like to be a doula. ‘Not true,’ I say. ‘It’s a myth and besides this one’s coming late. I know it.’

She chews the ends of her hair, a sign of boredom. ‘But how do you know?’ The sucking grows louder and more repugnant. ‘Mother’s instinct,’ I reply. ‘Right,’ she eye rolls. I think of a way to get her to leave, not wanting her to be here a second longer. ‘I’ve got a job for you that involves leaving the house,’ I say. Her mouth is agape. The clotted hair falls out and she’s on her feet, ready to bolt. 

 

Inch  

Dee sends me out to the allotment with three hessian sacks and a trowel. Asks me to dig potatoes for when the baby comes. It sounds like some weird ceremonial thing we do but it’s not. She’s just losing her mind. I don’t know what she’s planning on doing with the potatoes and this baby. Isn’t it milk to begin with until they get fat and start sprouting hair? I was the first person she told. Orp was in the watch room pretending not to smoke. ‘It’s a girl,’ she said, forcing my hand into hers. ‘How do you know?’ I replied. ‘It could be a monster.’ I wriggled my fingers from hers, spoiling a rare moment of affection. ‘That’s not a very nice thing to say,’ she said. ‘Promise me you won’t tell Orp. Not until the time is right.’

I’ve heard stories of babies barging into homes and divorcing families with their incessant needs and unwavering cries. I don’t know why they’re having one. We were doing fine as three. Three is infinitely better than four. I hate composite numbers and dividing things in half. Three is jagged. It’s dog-toothed, like a triangle. Unexpected and full of surprise. Four is predictable. Dull as anything. The monster is forcing us out of prime numbers and I don’t like her for it. She’s a home-wrecker and she’s not even born yet.

I went against Dee’s wishes and told Orp anyway, breaking the news over dinner. I could tell she was mad, chewing her lip to stop the rage. ‘At least we have the advantage of being by the water,’ I joked. ‘What do you mean?’ said Orp, salting his chips. ‘I mean... if the baby’s horrible, we can send her out to sea in a Moses basket.’ Dee lost it and the whole lighthouse shook with rage. They sent me to my room and locked my Walkman in a closet for three days. Orp later said, ‘you should never make a pregnant woman mad.’ After that, I promised Orp I’d make an effort and show an interest in the baby. It’s why I subscribed to the mother and baby magazine, and deliberately left tabs open on things like what’s the deal with doulas and how to be a good sister to make her think I was coming round to the idea. 

In Milkweed the soil is bone dry from whatever the sea purges. Shells muddled with chalk and loam. But come winter the shoreline is waterlogged. Things get stuck there. Shoes, frisbees, tennis balls – all lost to the giant bog. Years later they bubble to the surface. Most of the time it’s useless trash but not always. Sometimes treasure. Mudlarks sift out things of value before deciding what to do with them. I pocket stuff all the time. Once, a horseshoe covered in rust. Copper coins and the skull of a leveret. A small plastic disc with the number five in the middle. Orp reckons it’s a gambling chip from up country. There’s no way of knowing for sure. We don’t have casinos here.

I take the long path that wraps around the bay and when I reach a break in the hedge, I enter the forest. Soon horse chestnut trees will drop their spiky green husks, revealing treacle centres that harden in the sun. Aesculus hippocastanum. In the past people used to mash up the meat of chestnuts and feed it to their horses like minced beef. It was a cough medicine, a natural remedy of sorts. We don’t eat them in our house. But every autumn, when the stalks loosen their grip, we start The Game. The Game involves hiding chestnuts in pillowcases. If I find one in my pillowcase, it’s my turn to plant the next. And it goes like that, back and forth, back and forth. As we approach October, we know it’s coming, and it continues until the last of the chestnuts fall. We’ve never spoken about The Game and over the years we’ve become more sophisticated with our play. Dee has been known to plant sprouts instead, or the occasional rosehip to throw us off course. We find creative ways to outperform each other. I wonder if the monster will join in when she’s old enough. Chestnuts forcing her cheeks this way and that. Blood rushing as tiny capillaries threaten to bend and break.

I reach a cluster of tree-topped knolls and take the winding path that spirals down to a disused quarry. Yellow ribbons hang from the branches of silver birch and oak. The Peterson boy was last seen here in the forest. The ribbons are markers, mapping out the route he took on the morning of his disappearance. In the winter they are edged with frost, and come spring, they thaw out, shiny and new. After it happened, the island felt like a crime scene. With suspicions raised, people stopped talking. Orp and Dee behaved strangely too. Whenever I mentioned his name they swiftly changed the subject onto something trite and unimportant thinking I wouldn’t notice. I always notice things. Two years on and the community is starting to mend itself. But there’s a lingering feeling, a sort of haunting, that remains. And that won’t pass until a body is found. Someone on this island has something to hide.

Everyone has their own quiet theory. I don’t know what to think. But I do know that it doesn’t take much to swallow a life. Once we had a puppy. Eight weeks old. Needle-sharp teeth and smart as a whip. When we took him out walking for the first time, the air was full of bite. He was sniffing every tree, fir cone, acorn. Tongue loose, eyes soft. It happened in a flash. We emerged from the forest and arrived at the cliff top, sea spray smacking our faces. Something must’ve set him off. Crows squabbling, a bitch on heat. We’ll never know. He wriggled out of his harness, so happy to be free he didn’t see the edge.

 

Orp

Dee’s having one of her frenzied weekends where she shoots about like a firework getting ALL THE JOBS DONE. I tell her to slow down because of the baby. ‘But I’m too restless,’ she says, as she catches another cobweb with an old rag. She tells me Inch is harvesting King Edwards, which would normally set me off because she knows I don’t like her leaving the house on her own. But I have to watch my temper. ‘Only the best for our regal girl,’ I say, as I pull a fleece over my head. Rag in hand, she swoops the air for another silk thread, and misses. ‘Bloody things,’ she says, as I go out.

I’ve taken to smoking again. The urge came like an itch you can’t be rid of and I guess I just caved. Sometimes you defy temptation, other times the urge supersedes what little fight you have left in you. My feeble attempt at resisting the urge was swallowed whole and I have no regrets. I light up, and like magic the itch is gone. The last time I smoked Dee caught me in the act with a Marlboro Light hanging from my lips. She hit the roof. Now I only smoke in the watch room or out here in the forest where the air can flush it out of me. The sticky, tarlike, tobaccy badness. I have to make sure the smell is gone. I carry a tangerine because nothing gets past Dee.

To my left the Milk River runs clear. To my right silver birches are caked in moss. I follow the forest path bordered with conifers. Soon they’ll drop their needles and bare their branches for all to see. When I was a boy I used to come here alone. In a fit of rage I’d say, ‘I’m leaving for my forest family,’ and then I’d run into the heart of it until my legs were broken in. Sometimes I’d snap sticks into arrows wanting to be found. But they never came for me. I think they always knew I’d grow tired and come home. When I did, Esme would scold me. ‘You can’t run away from your troubles,’ she’d say. ‘Life will beat you to a pulp and no one wants to be pulp. You have to face what hurts.’ All I wanted was for her to pull me into a hug and tell me how she loved me more than the light.


I reach the cliff top and find clusters of people gathered in yellow t-shirts. At the foot of Saint Andrew and pinned to the ground with rocks are bunches of wildflowers, yellow ribbons, rosaries. Plastic wallets contain photographs of the boy, prayers and poems scrawled on paper. We gather around the statue of Saint Andrew to start the vigil. I catch sight of Carp but his mind is elsewhere, eyes searching the sea for some unknown truth. We ask the Lord to bring him back. I skip the Lord bit and mumble some other undecipherable thing but the intention is there. At daybreak the Peterson boy was spotted by a dog walker in the forest. Yellow t-shirt, blue sports cap, jeans. Spring in his step, heading for the cliffs. ‘Come back to us,’ we chant. ‘The Lord shall fight for you and ye shall hold your peace.’ I close my eyes like everyone else and bury my hands in my pockets for warmth, feeling for the tangerine.

Several days after the young lad was reported missing, a police officer asked me if I saw any movement on the precipice. ‘Was there any sign of life?’ he said. ‘Anything at all?’ Casting my mind back to that morning, I thought of the white of the cliffs, the blue of the sky. I looked at my notes in the weather log and found that at six minutes past six I wrote exceptionally clear. I remembered the guillemots. And in that moment I cared only for the guillemots. So when I was asked for a third and final time if I saw anyone on that cliff edge, ‘because any information could be vital at this stage in the investigation,’ I shook my head and said, ‘no sir, not a soul.’ When I was finally left alone, I cracked my knuckles, took a thimble of whisky, and made a mental note to check the nest as if my life depended on it.

I notice Carp looking at me, so I force a smile and raise a hand. It’s a half-wave and when he doesn’t return the gesture I feel stupid and stuff it back into my pocket. Carp’s always been on our periphery, bleeding into the landscape. His pitted skin is like the cliff face. It has these ridges and curves you can cling on to like boulders. He releases the yellow ribbon from his grasp and we watch it get carried off by the wind and sea spray. It’s our own private moment together. I always change my mind about the man because he lacks consistency. He’s clever like that.

More words are said but they are lost to the wind, the sea, the gulls that circle overhead. Someone strikes a match. Candles are lit. We wait for the wind to snuff them out. And one by one, we leave.

 

Inch

When I reach the allotment everything looks spent. The last of the sunflowers have been shredded by vultures. Ears of corn are like shrunken heads with curling husks for mouths and rotten seeds for teeth. All that remains are the things with thorns and skins.

I pinch out the shoots of triffid-like pumpkins to get them off to a good start. Scan the rows of crop and eventually find what I’m looking for. Rolling up my sleeves, I plunge my hands into the soil and feel for King Edward. There’s something satisfying about extracting things from the ground and bringing them up for air. Edward does not disappoint. He is fat with starch and caked in earth. ‘You’re perfect for our monster,’ I say, brushing off the soil. I fill the sack with more potatoes and twig the kale. This year it’s curly scarlet and black magic. Big, ruffled leaves tinged with purple. Both as revolting as each other.

I walk along the railway sleeper like it’s a tightrope. Check the brassicas for caterpillars and find hundreds of butterfly eggs under the leaves, bedded in for winter. Loosening the soil, I grip a scallion by its tail and wriggle it free. Check the squash. One is still growing, the other is infested with brown bugs. Anasa tristis. When their orange eggs hatch, the larvae enter through the opening in groups of eight. I think about feeding our monster the bugs and watching her squirm.

When I asked Dee what it felt like to carry a baby, she said ‘at the beginning it’s just cells and liquid and it may as well be nothing.’ She said there are days you forget it’s there. That it’s a mere crumb of a thing, almost invisible. ‘There’s all this space around it and for a while the crumb and the other stuff just coexist in this warm environment.’ She told me how in the final phase, the phase she’s in now, it develops its own character. ‘It’s like magic,’ she said. ‘And you’ve no choice but to relinquish control.’

 

Dee

This is my second baby so I know the drill. What is normal, what is not. Inch thinks it’s coming early and often she’s right. Like Orp, she has this sixth sense. She’ll say, ‘Carp’s on his way over here,’ and five minutes later he’ll be at our door, ringing the bell. It spooks me.

Lighthouse empty, I get all the jobs done. I separate the plastics – soft from hard. Take out the rubbish and lift things I shouldn’t. Stop to rest, start again. Clean the kitchen. Sponge cooker rings. Remove the rust. Bleach the sink. Cream the grouting between the tiles. The orange-speckled tiles I’ve tried to love. The orange-speckled tiles the colour of baby chick vomit. I push hard on the grout lines to remove the dirt, hoping clean, white lines will make them less offensive. I still hate the tiles.

A sharp pain jolts through me, bottom up. I drop the sponge, brown with rust, into the sink. Hands on my belly, I focus on my breathing. Look for my phone. Check the kitchen worktop, dining table, sofa, coal scuttle. It comes again, more drawn out this time. I turn the kitchen taps. It’s a steady trickle at first and then it gushes. Fill a pint glass. Tongue two pills and knock them back. Most of the water goes down my top settling on the underwiring of my bra. Right between my breasts. Another pain comes where I imagine her head to be. It arrives like a rock to the skull. ‘Don’t break, baby,’ I say, before pulling my night dress over my head. Something twigs and water gushes between my legs. Clear with tinges of red.

Using the walls to steady myself, I feel my way to the bathtub and think of something nice. Her smell, headier than incense, from months of floating in amniotic fluid. The tiniest of fingernails. I turn the taps and let the bath fill up. Empty the salts in case she comes out wrong. I do my breathing. In and out. Picture a square and count to three.

The contractions intensify so I get on my hands and knees. The floorboards moan as I tilt my pelvis back and forth like the steady rhythm of a tide. I imagine waves folding. Soft, stirring ripples. The contractions become more frequent. I place both hands on my belly as the heat of her burns through. I open my legs and feel for her head. It’s there, she’s coming. When I bring my fingers out, they’re tacky with blood.  

 

Orp

I have another cigarette and bring up Dee’s number on my phone. There’s no signal. I try again. Still nothing. Waving the phone around, I manage two lines. It rings twice before going straight to voicemail.

The rollie burns right down, singeing my fingertips. I stamp it out and bury it beneath a pile of leaf litter. Then I think about all the times I’ve picked up other people’s trash, gum and rollies, so make myself go back and retrieve it. I eat the clementine greedily and let the juice spill down my chin. Bring the peel to my mouth and rub it against my teeth, a trick someone taught me once. ‘Scrub hard,’ they said, ‘it takes the smoke right out of you.’ They were right about that; it works every time. I throw the peel into the river and watch it twirl downstream like a spinning top.

Emerging from the forest, everything opens up. Ahead of me the sea extends for miles. I pass Carp’s restaurant where, come first light, trawlers offload their lobster traps. On any other day the kitchen door is open. Whelks and oysters stacked in boxes packed in ice. Slippery fronds of dulse and kelp sizzling in a hot, oiled pan. But today the shutters are down and the only sound comes from the gulls and lapping waves. I reach the small stretch of beach where long flats of fissile rock spill over on wet sand. Some of the rocks are fringed with bladderwrack, Dee’s favourite, for the air pockets that snap, crackle and pop. The tide is low but come nine it'll rush in and then it all starts over.

Dotted along the bay where shingle meets spume are giant adder stones made of flint. Doughnut-like in appearance with threads of feldspar running through, they are the Eyes that face the sea, connecting us to what is lost. People slot coins into their crevices and cast wishes. Flowers are placed at their feet to mark a passing. During low tide children throw rocks through them, but when the tide swells the Eyes slip beneath the waves and disappear from view. I reach the tallest Eye. At just under eleven foot its shadow engulfs me. I palm the stone, wet and slippery, and think of the Peterson boy.

I make my way back home to the light that never goes out. Pebble dashing around the bottom and limewash colouring the top. ‘Isn’t she pretty,’ they say. ‘What a sight, watch her shine.’ And at night, when I look out onto Milkweed at the hundreds of houses blinking in the dark, I see their eyes staring back at us, daring our cracks to reveal themselves, muscles to atrophy, waiting for the bones of our lighthouse to break.

 

Inch

In class once, Dee told me about existential philosophers. How they link avoidance of choice to the fear of freedom. ‘They say,’ she said, ‘that the moment we become aware of the contingency of our lives and our responsibility in shaping them, what follows is the inevitable dizziness of being.’ She said “decision paralysis” is something people of my generation are plagued with. I found myself yearning for that feeling. It was desirable to me; the idea of having too many decisions. It’s hard to relate when you don’t have any agency over your life. Orp and Dee set the rules. They know what’s best for me. But I did experience vertigo once, so I know how it feels to be dizzy in an everything-around-me-is-moving sort of way.

At least I can shape my thoughts without interference. My mind is free and that counts for something. I’m a half-autonomous being and maybe that’s enough. At night when all is dark, I let my mind spool over the things I long to do. Pierce my ears, light a spliff, drink orange soda, tattoo my wrist, swear at Orp, swing for Dee, pick a lock, break and enter, bleach my hair, colour it pink, shoplift silver, shoplift gold, shot vodka, shot tequila, shot gin, load a gun, skin an animal, tan a hide, ride a train, cruise a boat, fly a plane, fist a wall, scar a face, bruise a knee, try water. Try water in brooks. Try it in streams. In rivers, in falls, in lagoons, in pools. Swim the sea. Taste the salt. Go right under. Do it again, and again, and again.

 

Dee

The sound of a key turning. Feet brush against a mat, tired and heavy, as dry mud peppers the floorboards. Let it be Orp, let it be Orp. He calls my name. I call his back. Dee, he says, over and over. I’m here, I reply, follow my voice. Dee, he says. Orp. Using my free hand, I curl my bloodied fingers into a tight fist. Knock my fist against the tiles. One, two, three. I’m lying on my side, watching the dust rise and settle. Cheek pressed against the cold, hard floor. Face next to the feet that cradle the bathtub. Cast iron, the claws of a lion. One is missing and in its place is a brick propping it up so the water doesn’t spill over and out. I knock again, more strength this time. One, two, three. The door pushes open and I feel his hands all over me, trying to knit my parts back together. Because in my arms is a bundle of towels, and in the bundle of towels, a baby. ‘Her name is Grace,’ I tell him, as he cushions my head on a towel. There’s a loud splash, and then, darkness.


 

The Golden Fern by Johanna Robinson

July 1832

Liverpool

Magnolia

Anna Bracewell slips her free hand inside the loosened collar of her nightdress, feeling for the warm weight of the pocket watch that hangs from her neck. Her fingers tangle in the yellow ribbon, pulling at it until the watch sits in her palm. With a practised flick of her thumb, she opens the case, the mother-of-pearl face clear even in the dark; it’s an hour until sunrise, at most. She checks the sky – plum-purple still, through the leaves. She hopes an hour is enough. The hole does not have to be big, but it needs to be deep.

She leans against the oak, into the place where it forks into two. The weight, the bundle, in her left arm is hardly anything, but also everything. Philip stands in the small clearing, at the spot they have chosen. When he turns to her, his expression says, Are we still doing this? She nods, and he reaches for his spade, lying on the ground.

She cannot bear the forgiveness in her husband’s eyes; she cannot bear any of it, and she looks away, listening to the thud and huff of the spade through the soil. Her head feels light, hazy, the opposite to her heart, which during the night seems to have taken everything for itself. If it weren’t for Lucille, asleep in her room, in her cot, less than a hundred yards away, no doubt with her thumb in her mouth, Anna would gladly hurl her swollen heart into the hole too.

She remembers their discovery of this little patch of city woodland, five years now, the thrill of finding it beyond the gate in the wall behind Rose Street, behind number five, like an ancient secret kept by the four surrounding rows of houses. She remembers how Philip’s eyes met hers, how he crouched, his fingers curled around a tiny rare fern. How she had been drawn to this oak, and had calculated, through strides and string, its age, how it must have been here before the settlement became a city, before shipping routes circled the earth, how, somehow, it had been lucky enough to be left in peace, in place. 

As Philip digs, she incants silently the name of each tree silhouette. ‘Poplar, rowan, ash.’ Her fingernails dig into the trunk. ‘Yew, holly, pine, pine, pine.’

As Philip digs, her belly cramps again, but all that quickens is a sadness. She holds the tight bundle closer. She feels like all the soft parts of her are turning hard, hard parts soft. Her womb becoming rock, bones to butter, her throat rough as sand. In her head, she runs through what she will need when they return to the house. Arnica, chamomile, ignatia. She breathes in the air of the woods, feels her body steady with the tartness of bramble and bracken and the mellow scent of summer earth.

Philip’s face, his kind, patient face, is stiff with concentration. She tries to forget the prickle of betrayal at his midnight begging, Please, Anna, let me fetch a doctor. Instead, she watches how he inhabits the pattern of push, shovel, push. He has always been a man of rhythm – Anna knew from the outset, from the three sturdy knocks on her mother’s door all those years ago, as he passed by, lost. But over the years she came to realise how much he loves the swell and ebb of daily life, the beat of logic and of the law and of love. For each of their daughter’s first words – fern, papa, book, he’d made a ditty they would sing, over and over, until Lucille’s next word came along, like a bubble through water. I disrupt him, thinks Anna.

Love disrupts us all.

Eventually, the edges of the sky turn sallow, and Philip props the spade against a tree. His eyes latch onto hers, and she steps forward.

But she’s not strong enough to lay the basket, the two bundles, into the hole. She’s not strong enough to lift the magnolia, though it’s only a sapling. She is strong enough only to cast a handful of soil around its roots, once Philip has lowered it into the ground.

 

It is not wrong, what they are doing. It does not feel wrong.

She, of all people, knew all a doctor could do was nothing. All a doctor would do was take away the too-early babies, arrange a burial with a cold, dead stranger. No. This way, she will be able to watch over them herself. From her Green Room, she’ll be able to see the magnolia grow and bloom.

Philip takes her hand, and there’s grit between their palms.

‘Will you stop your work now?’ he asks. ‘Surely that will be too much for you. After this.’

‘No,’ she says, and the silence in the woods grows and grows, until the birds stir, and dawn breaks proper, and from Lucille’s open window they can hear her begin to wake, to whimper. They can hear Esther’s singing, a lullaby, and together Philip and Anna are drawn back from the woods, through the rickety gate, to their garden, to their house, to their two-year-old daughter, and to their lives.

 

Lucille and George, Six

April 1836

Liverpool Botanic Gardens

On the newly gravelled, pristine paths, Lucille Bracewell slips and skips between skirts and bustles, darts around canes and dodges umbrellas. Her cape is too tight around her neck, but she must keep it on – blue as the April sky, it means she can easily be found. Her boots are tight too, her protests ignored by Esther that morning, as their housekeeper pulled and knotted the stiff waxed laces. The crowd is a kind of moving maze, and when it spits her out, she finds herself on the edge of a lawn, neat and even as velvet. She places one boot onto it, and looks around. No one seems to care. Not the small packs of adults, gathered like explorers, clutching their maps, pointing at curiosities. Not her father, peering at a sprouting of ferns against one of the high walls. Not her mother in her fox-orange coat and dark brown hat, taking notes in her small commonplace book. All attention is on the plants, not on children. Not on a girl. Lucille sets her other boot on the grass, and runs, fast, as though the grass might turn to ice and that to water, until she arrives at the other side, another path, and the brink of a crater in the ground.

‘It’s for the Norfolk Island pine,’ says a woman, her voice sugary but hard. Like the kind of caramel that cuts.

‘Yes.’ Lucille wriggles her toes against the confines of her boots. ‘My papa showed me the island on the map this morning.’

The woman laughs, an ugly noise that sounds to Lucille like an injured horse. ‘Oh, it hasn’t come from the island. It’s come from the old Botanic Gardens.’

‘I know. But it came from the island once. When it was very young, like me.’ Lucille looks up at the woman, and recognises the expression. Surprise. Annoyance. A fixed smile, sucked-in cheeks. It’s how people often look at her mother too. Lucille turns, then runs back across the lawn, around the flowerbeds, neat as quilts, past the fountain, small as an afterthought, and the oval lake. Away from the perfumed crowds, in the shade of a tree, she can smell the raw, turned earth. The familiar, sweet, peppery ferns. The new buds, something the opposite of ripeness. Similar to the woods behind their house on Rose Street, but so new. So arranged. Like the pop-up book her papa bought her. She stands, watches, imagines the shrubs and rose bushes printed on card, the adults as cut-outs. 

George is sitting on the high brick wall, watching for the arrival of the Norfolk pine on its horse-drawn wagon, when he sees a girl standing below him. Blue-caped shoulders, a yellow ribbon holding back her hair, brown as treacle, and yellow gloves to match, held up in front of her face, so her fingers make a square. There’s no sign of the tree yet, though near the deep hole stands his grandfather, and the other gardeners, hands in pockets, pipes in mouths. Beyond them, the glasshouse glitters in the sun. Had he not seen it built, pane by pane, strut and girder, he’d have thought it a miracle. He looks back down at the girl, and jumps.

‘Oh,’ says Lucille, startled from her picture-book world by the boy who has landed beside her. He rubs his ankle, tugs at the hem of his waistcoat, and stares at her. His skin is golden brown, like the top of the loaf Esther bakes each morning – apart from a little pink island on his cheek, which looks like a burn. 

‘Hello,’ he says, pushing a curl of hair from his eyes, though it falls back to where it was. ‘Are you lost?’

‘No. You can’t get lost in a garden with walls and gates. Anyway,’ she says, reaching for the drawstring bag around her waist and pulling out the silver disk. ‘I have a compass.’ 

The boy chews his lip. ‘Are you going to watch the tree being planted? My grandad helped dig the hole.’

Lucille nods. ‘Can we watch together?’ She looks up. ‘We could watch it from up there.’

He shakes his head. ‘I’ll be in a different part of the garden from you, when the tree is planted. With my grandad and the other gardeners.’

‘Oh.’

They stand for a moment, looking at each other.

‘I’m Lucille Bracewell,’ she says, though she feels she knows him already.

‘I’m George Astley.’ He grins. ‘Would you like to see inside the glasshouse?’

She turns to the building, which sits – almost hovers – raised, at the top of the Gardens. It glimmers like one of her father’s glass paperweights when it catches the sun, slivers of green trapped within. Two long sections stretch out across the stone terrace, but the middle section is the grandest, taller than ten men, its roof a perfect arch, a perfect fan of glass. ‘Papa says it’s locked,’ she whispers.

The boy grins. ‘I know a way in.’

 He lets her go first, and she scrambles through the open window at the back of the building made of glass. It is so hot, she cannot believe anything can survive in here, but things are more than surviving – they are flowing and overflowing, climbing, bursting, creeping. The air feels wet, as though she’s in the lung of a giant, but it’s quiet as a church. She unbuttons her cape and folds it onto the low wall, then pulls off her gloves and hangs them on a nearby branch. Crouching, she examines a crowd of ferns, curled, uncurling, some fronds bigger than a cat. She nudges her boot through the speckled soil, then with her fingers traces one of the plants, all the way up the stem, to its tight, waiting fiddlehead.

‘Come on,’ says George, tugging at her sleeve. ‘Fern are boring. Come and see the orchids.’

‘Ferns are not —’ she begins, but he’s off, and her feet take her after him, the snapped tip of a fern still between her fingers, its tiny hairs and soft curve familiar, reassuring. She follows him along the path, vines slinking over her shoulders and leaves tickling her face. She drags a green burr from her hair. She passes a pool, like a cup made of stone, as tall as she is and peers in; the surface is skimmed with algae, a pale-orange hint of a fish beneath. She dips her hand in, and the water is neither cold nor warm. Green threads drape her fingers, and she wipe them against the rough stone rim, then chases after the boy.

‘Here,’ George says, stopping so abruptly she bumps into him. All around them, orchids are suspended from trees on invisible threads: orchids in pots, orchids cascading from baskets that hang on thick iron chains. There’s an orchid for every colour of her mother’s wardrobe. The boy peers at a pale pink flower nestled in the fork of a branch, and it seems to peer back. ‘I used to think they were called norchids,’ he says. ‘When I was five.’

She giggles. ‘Papa has some in his hothouse,’ she reaches out her hand to the nearest waxy flower. ‘But nothing like these.’

‘Don’t touch,’ says George. ‘Grandad works in here. He says they’ll die if we touch them.’

Lucille examines a spindly, purple flower. ‘Doesn’t that make you want to touch them, though, just a little. Just to see?’

He lifts his fingers to the mark on his cheek, a pink island on the pale brown skin. ‘No.’

‘What did you do?’ she asks. ‘To your cheek.’

I didn’t do anything.’ He speaks angrily, but quietly, as though the flowers must not hear. ‘My da did it. Hit me so I fell on a hot coal rolled from the grate.’

Lucille tries to imagine this small boy, the man’s hand, and blinks away tears.

‘He does it to all of us. I’m going to come and live with my grandad one day. My brothers are in the mines. I’m not going.’ The last three words he speaks are hard, like flint on flint.

‘I don’t have any brothers,’ says Lucille, the only way she can think of to change the subject. ‘Or sisters.’

‘Did they die?’

‘No. Mama says she only wanted one.’

‘You can’t choose.’

‘Mama says you can.’ She takes a step closer. ‘She will have something to help your burn – I can ask her if you like?’

But George turns away, and tugs at her sleeve, pulling her to a small cluster of red flowers. ‘This is my favourite orchid,’ he says, pointing. ‘It’s from Brazil.’

‘From the rainforest?’ She folds her arms so she is not tempted to touch it. ‘Papa says one day, he’ll take me to the rainforest.’

George pushes his curl back again, with the flat of his hand. ‘From Liverpool? Is there a train?’

‘No, silly. But when I’m older, we can go on a boat.’ She pushes a damp strand of hair from her face, and tucks it into the ribbon tied at the nape of her neck. ‘And after that, I’m going to university, like Papa did.’

George scratches his head. ‘But you’re a girl.’

The hot feeling gathers in her belly, swelling and spreading and rising until she feels her scalp aflame. She turns her back to the orchids. ‘I ought to find Mama.’

‘No!’ His face flushes. ‘Wait…’ He beckons her close. ‘My grandad’s working on something secret.’

She feels each word on her cheek. Her fingers nestle into the fiddlehead in her pocket. ‘A secret?’

‘He’s trying to make a new orchid. Mixing one orchid with another to make a brand-new one.’

‘You can’t do that.’

‘Grandad says you can. He calls it a cross, or a hybrid, and no one’s done it before – not with orchids.’ He whispers, as though the orchids might be listening, like this news might be carried off like pollen.

‘If it’s not been done before, how does he know it’s possible?’

George chews on his lip. ‘He just believes. He says it’s like a spell, but you need to work out all the different parts.’

‘A spell?’

George nods.

Lucille’s papa is a lawyer. He doesn’t like words like spell, or superstition or magic. But he does like experiments and proving people wrong.

‘It’s a secret, though?’ George brings his finger to his lips.

Lucille draws the tiny, hairy fern tip from her pocket and gestures for his hand, dropping the plant into it and closing up his fingers. ‘That’s for your secret.’

George watches the girl climb out through the window and run, a flash of blue in each pane of glass. Flash, flash, flash. When she has gone, he finds on the floor of the glasshouse one of her yellow gloves, tiny like an injured bird. He picks it up, inserts the fern head into it, rolls it carefully and pushes it into his pocket.

Later, he will show the severed fiddlehead to his grandfather, and tell him about the girl, and the old man will laugh, and say, a fern, Georgie? Well, you’d better watch out, but he doesn’t share what the gift of a fern might mean, and when George says her name was Bracewell, his grandfather will stop laughing, and use a voice George hasn’t heard before: Bracewell, you say? It’s for the best your paths won’t cross again.

And that night, on the thin mattress, as his grandfather snores, George will dream that a wick is threaded through each of his bones, stringing them together, will dream that the girl in the blue cape is standing before him, holding a red flame in the palm of her hand, will dream that secrets can set things alight.

 

Lucille, Six

April 1836

The secret

The longer Lucille keeps the secret, the bigger it seems to get, ripening in her chest, squishing her heart. Before her morning lessons, she creeps into the hothouse and examines each orchid, magnifying glass in hand, committing each detail to memory, until her eyes water, scratchy with pollen.

hybrid. The whispered word flutters around her brain, and, sitting at her desk at her mother’s side, it dislodges all her knowledge, makes a chaos of the facts she is supposed to learn. She cannot remember which herb is which, which to dry and which to steep. By the afternoon, her slate is full of orchids. She forgets supper, becomes lost in her father’s atlas, matching orchid to country.

Her papa had told her how once, not so long ago, people thought that fern-seed could make a person invisible. She had laughed alongside him, and yet, ever since, she has shared her secrets with her fern-friends, whispering them at night where other children might pray. Whispering, because she doesn’t think Esther would approve of invisible people, invisible friends. Now, this secret is growing, unfurling, opening, taking up more and more space, and each night she stands in her nightgown on a box and summons her invisible crowd. ‘Behold.’ She flourishes her arms, presents the invisible orchid. ‘The hybrid.’ She bows. ‘My hybrid.’

‘I don’t know what’s got into Lucille,’ says Anna. ‘Would you speak to her?’

Philip smiles. ‘Perhaps she’s not interested in learning your medicine. And quite right. She’s six.’

‘I started when I was younger.’ Anna shakes her head. ‘Anyway, it’s more than that. She hasn’t watered your ferns today either – none of the ones on the staircase. Not even the tree fern.’

Philip lowers his newspaper. ‘Really?’

 

‘I’ll tell you, Papa,’ says Lucille solemnly, as she wriggles to one side of her bed to make room for him to perch. ‘But it’s our secret, and you have to give me something for it.’

‘A kiss.’

‘No!’

‘What, then, Lulu?’

‘A promise.’ She presses her hands on her chest, as if to calm the giddy secret.

‘Promise you’ll take me to the rainforest one day?’

‘I promise.’ He taps her nose. ‘Now…?’

 

Philip sits behind his desk, his eyes travelling along the shelves of books. Ferns, law. Law, ferns. He has loved ferns as long as he can remember. Their simultaneous simplicity and complexity. The fact that they skip a generation, the link between grandparent and grandchild closer than parent and child – though of course, he tries not to think in such human terms. But now … he examines the two books on orchids, and tries, too, not to think in terms of temptation. The candle flame jerks in an unseen draught. His daughter has lifted a curtain to reveal— what? The temptation of the impossible, perhaps? A long-buried sense of competition? But, no, it was never buried – simply channelled into his job, the drive to win, to break new ground, to set precedents. He rises, lifts out one of the orchid books, and blows off the dust, what his daughter calls dead spores. There’s no harm in trying, he thinks. In learning. And the more he can involve Lucille, the less time there will be for Anna’s teaching, and if Anna cannot teach, perhaps she will stop doing.

 

George, Six

Praying

While his grandfather is busy writing notes in his orchid room, George slides the tip of the fern between two pages of his bible. He tries not to think about his grandad’s warning over breakfast, that the Bracewells were good people, no doubt, but things were said. He places the closed bible on the floor, steps onto it, counts to two hundred, and steps off.

He does this at each visit, and one day, unable to wait any longer, he shakes the fern from the bible, onto his grandfather’s small kitchen table. With one finger, he traces the flat fossil swirl. When his grandfather’s footsteps creak across the landing, George tucks the fern back between the pages.

‘A bible?’ Robert frowns. ‘What do you want with that, George?’

‘I’m praying God will keep me out of the mines,’ says George quickly. He does not say out loud and away from my father.

‘Hopefully that’s down to me, not God.’ His grandfather beckons him to the room where his orchids live, once a watchmaker’s workshop, one floor up, north-facing, and heated by the pipes from the locksmith beneath them. George climbs onto the wooden crate at his grandfather’s side, and does as instructed, adds water to the orchid pots, counts roots, measures stems. But today, he does not ask questions about orchids. He chatters about ferns, asks how they grow, how they die, how they spread, where they come from, how they got their names. The last question is his favourite, for while orchids’ names – calanthe, cattleya, trichotosia – stick in his mouth, like a spoonful of flour, fern names are stories, or like people in stories: maidenhair, Christmas, hart’s tongue, polypody. He wants to be part of their world. And somewhere in that world, he is sure he will find Lucille Bracewell.


 

Jody Cooksley: The Small Museum
Read More
Matilde Pratesi: Publication News!
Read More
Suzy Aspley: Crow Moon
Read More
L. A. MacRae: And Now the Light is Everywhere
Read More
Jody Cooksley: Publication News!
Read More
Alex Hay: The Housekeepers
Read More
Kristen Loesch: The Last Russian Doll
Read More
Alex Hay: Publication News!
Read More
Douglas Westerbeke: Publication News!
Read More
Alan Murrin: Publication News!
Read More
1 2
caledoniaaward@gmail.com
Copyright © 2024 Caledonia Novel Award. All rights reserved.
Designed & Developed By Crunchy Carrots.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram