Category Archives: Booker Longlist

The Kills by Richard House – Extract

The Kills

SUTLER

AMRAH CITY

1.1

John Jacob Ford’s morning began at 3:03 with a call from Paul Geezler, Advisor to the Division Chief, Europe, for HOSCO International.

Listen. There’s a problem and it can’t be solved. You need to disap­pear.

Five hours before Geezler’s phone call, Kiprowski came to Ford’s cabin and presented him with a Mason jar. Stopped at his door, Ford lis­tened without much interest – until Kiprowski tilted the jar and what Ford had taken to be a nest of beetles unsnagged one from another, and he could see without trouble that these were scorpions, some ruddy-black, some amber, some semi-translucent. Most, except one, with bodies smaller than a quarter. The largest scorpion, black, brittle, almost engineered, took up the entire width of the container from claw-tip to tail.

Unwilling to touch the jar, Ford managed not to recoil. He asked Kiprowski what he wanted and Kiprowski said he didn’t rightly know. He’d found them under a tarpaulin close to Burn Pit 5, and while they were dead he didn’t trust the other men not to use them for some kind of a joke, Pakosta especially, and he didn’t want them winding up in food, in cots, on seats, in pockets – and besides, he said, I thought you’d be interested. They look like toys, he said. Like clockwork toys. And they light up under blacklight. They fluoresce, honest to god. They glow.

Throughout the conversation Kiprowski called Ford Sutler, a name still fresh to Ford’s ears. Strictly speaking Sutler didn’t exist. Stephen Lawrence Sutler, the name Ford assumed on his arrival at Camp Liberty, was an alias, an invention set up by his employer, Paul Geezler, to satisfy company policy. New contracts require new contractors. Ford understood Sutler to be a useful conceit for Geezler, certainly some­thing more valuable than a quick-fix solution to a sticky contractual arrangement. More useful and more complex than he wanted to know. On occasion Geezler asked for favours, ideas on this and that, news on what was happening at the burn pits or at the government offices.

His six weeks as Sutler were not without interest. While Sutler and Ford were one and the same person, he’d noticed a growing number of differences, most of them small. Sutler, for example, spoke his mind and honoured his word. Ford dissembled, avoided stating definite opinions. Sutler applied himself to his work. Ford just couldn’t focus. Sutler endured practical jokes, and given Kiprowski’s gift, appeared considerably less queasy about handling venomous insects. Ford was familiar with many small disappointments and failures, but Sutler had no such history and as a consequence felt competent and free.

Ford took the jar into his cabin but couldn’t bring himself to throw the contents out, and set it on the floor, far from the bed, shrouded with a T-shirt with a hardback book on top, although he knew the lid to be secure and the scorpions to be dead.

For an hour after Geezler’s call Ford sat on his cot while time slipped from him, head in hands as he attempted to reason through Geezler’s message.

Listen to me. There’s a problem and it can’t be solved. You need to dis­appear. Tomorrow, go to the regional government office as planned and submit the transfer requests as if everything is normal. I’ve set up four new operation accounts, and opened a junk account. Give the transfer requests and the account numbers for all of the accounts to Howell. Make sure he attaches the four operation accounts to the Massive, and make sure he completes all of the transactions by midday. Then leave. The money in the junk account is yours. Once it’s transferred no one but you can touch it. Do not inform Howell about your plans. Do not stay at Southern-CIPA. Do not return to Camp Liberty. If you return you will be arrested. Do not pack your belongings, you are being watched. Make no attempt to contact me. Disappear. Avoid military transport and per­sonnel. The warrant will be issued for you and Howell at noon: I can’t guarantee more time. You have nine hours.

Geezler read the numbers out twice, and Ford scribbled them on a sheet of paper rested on his knee: each number eight digits long, four prefaced with HOS/OA, one with HOS/JA. Geezler had him repeat the numbers back to him.

Under these instructions lay an understanding that Ford would follow precisely what was asked of him. This was their agreement. Geezler guaranteed employment under two qualifications, you go as Sutler; you leave when I say, and the money, a tidy two hundred thousand, was good enough for him to agree to these terms without question. The warning of arrest alarmed him, although the possibility had occurred to him many times. Geezler’s instructions were clear. Proceed as normal. Leave by midday. Tell no one. Make no contact. Go.

Ford kept his passport and credit cards (all under his own name) safe in a plastic bag in a slit cut into his mattress. He ran through the possibilities. He could do exactly as Geezler advised, meet with Howell then manufacture an excuse to leave before midday – or, simpler still, leave immediately, take one of the vehicles, fuel up, drive and not stop.

A series of scratches brought his attention back to the room. Tiny and complex, and without any particular location.

As soon as he lifted the T-shirt he could see movement inside the container as one by one the smaller ginger scorpions appeared to revive. With a certain horror he raised the glass to the light and noticed how the smaller scorpions struggled to burrow and hide under the larger bodies, and this seemed strange to him, how something natu­rally armoured would seek the security of cover.

Listen. There’s a problem and it can’t be solved. You need to disap­pear. You have nine hours.

1.2

20:30 at the regional government offices at Amrah City, the Deputy Administrator for Project Finance at Southern-CIPA, Paul Howell, walked through Accounts and told the last late workers to leave. Howell stood at the centre of the office and pointed at the computer screens and said there’s a deep-clean scheduled for tonight. Log out, and unplug the terminals. I know, he said, I know. I just heard myself. Tomorrow we’ll have an updated system, maybe even something that works. Tomorrow, when you come in, you’ll need to change your password.

Howell considered himself a smart and logical man, and he under­stood that if any of the officers paused to think through the situation it wouldn’t make sense. So he stood in the office, chivvied them along, and waited until the last of them were gone. This gesture would cause fresh trouble: a delay in payments to utility workers, a delay in pay­ments to the Oil Ministry, a delay in reports to Baghdad. But in one day, he could be certain, none of this would be his problem.

He sent his officers back to their quarters, knowing there were no bars or facilities within the compound, no place to relax, and that a night off work meant a night without air-con and a night without com­puters. While most worked late through necessity, others stayed by choice to contact their families back in the US.

Alone, Howell returned to his desk. He shut the blinds, he took out a bottle of malt and poured himself a generous measure. He settled behind his desk, drew a note from his pocket, placed it beside the phone and considered his options – he could shoot himself, he could attempt to disappear, he could destroy the records, he could burn down the office – but knew, in seriousness, that he didn’t have that kind of character or commitment. Instead, he waited until the time written down on the paper, then called Paul Geezler, Advisor to the Division Chief, Europe, for HOSCO International.

‘I have your note.’ Howell spoke softly, as if this were an ordinary discussion. ‘There are rumours about who might be the new director. I’ve heard that David is interested?’

‘We need someone in post. He’s preparing his bid.’

‘You’d move with him?’

‘I haven’t decided.’

‘Everyone knows he depends on you.’

‘I haven’t decided.’ Geezler drew in a long breath. ‘We need to speak frankly, Paul. About the border highway. About the transfers. I found the requests – and I wouldn’t have questioned them – but the money never arrived. Out of interest, Paul, why Al-Muthanna?’

‘Because it’s desert. Because no one goes there. There was a one­time project when I arrived, building roads. The project finished two years ago. Right now it looks active, but it’s only live on paper.’

Geezler cleared his throat. ‘Just out of interest, how close was my estimate?’

‘A little low. It’s closer to five, five and a half.’

‘All from the same accounts?’

‘About eighty-five, ninety per cent.’

‘And all of it money allocated for HOSCO projects?’

Howell said yes, if anyone was going to build highways through a stretch of desert, it would be HOSCO. ‘We had money ready for dis­bursement to HOSCO accounts sitting without movement. The figures were small in proportion to the overall budget.’ These reasons, he knew, came only after the fact. He hadn’t deliberately meant to take money, not at first. What started as a modest one-off loan to cover a shortfall quickly became a habit, and once he figured out a ruse, build­ing roads through deserts no one would use, he saw no reason to stop himself. Every day he handed backpacks, suitcases, briefcases, even brown-paper bags packed with cash to ministers, contractors, and project organizers, all of it a legitimate part of his work. Losing a little, allowing a little backward flow to smooth the edge off his own discom­fort, seemed natural, easily within bounds.

‘How much of this is refundable?’

‘None. How did you find out?’

‘The transfer requests. Eventually, they’re all tracked. There was movement where there shouldn’t be movement. Road building is smart. I looked right at it and thought it was ours.’

‘How did you know it was me?’

‘This could only come from a government office. Only you can authorize transfers over ten. Only you can attach accounts to projects.’

Howell pushed the note away. ‘You should know, I can’t pay it back.’

Geezler allowed a long pause. ‘I’m not looking for you to pay any­thing back, Paul.’ Sounding weary, Geezler said he needed time to think. He’d call back in twenty minutes and make only one offer. Did Howell understand?

Howell said he understood.

‘This isn’t a negotiation, Paul.’

Twenty minutes later, Paul Geezler called back. In the interim, Howell had attempted to total his spending, but overshot Geezler’s estimate and came up with a new and larger figure. He apologized for taking up Geezler’s time.

‘I’m interested in the Massive, Paul.’

‘What do you need to know?’

‘I take it the funds are still in place?’

‘Something in the region of fifty-plus – but it’s barely started. The money hasn’t been transferred. The project hasn’t moved beyond paper yet. Nothing has been spent. I’m seeing the budget holder in the morning.’

‘Stephen Sutler.’

‘That’s right. You know him?’

Once again Geezler cleared his throat. ‘Paul,’ he said, ‘have you heard the story about the gorilla and the basketball game?’

Howell said he hadn’t.

‘It’s all about a simple bluff. It’s from a test. A number of subjects are taken to a basketball game and asked to count the passes. An incentive is offered to sweeten the activity and make it competitive. Halfway through the game a man in a gorilla suit walks onto the court. There’s no explanation for this. He stops right in the middle of the court with the game going on around him, beats his chest, then he walks off. None of the players, none of the commentators, nobody in fact gives the gorilla any attention. Do you know how many of the people counting passes notice him?’

‘I can’t imagine.’

‘Less than fifty per cent, Paul. Less than fifty. And do you know how many people raise this in a discussion after the game? How many ask about the gorilla once everything’s settled?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘No one. Not one. Because they’re too busy trying to get something right. They’re anxious, Paul, they want to know if they’ve done every­thing they were supposed to. Because, if they can help it, nobody likes to get anything wrong.’

Howell struggled to see how the story applied to him.

‘We need to perform something a little different. We don’t want the auditors counting passes, we want them to look out for the gorilla. It’s very simple. If they look for one thing, if they focus on one task, they won’t see what matters. They won’t see things right. You understand?’ Geezler cleared his throat as he came to the point. ‘Does anyone else know about the highways?’

‘No.’

‘That’s how we’re going to keep it. Everyone is going to be looking for missing money, but no one is going to be looking at those high­ways. There’s no reason to. Now, Paul, I want you to do something very straightforward. Can you change the codes on those transfers you made? Can you make them look like cash payments?’

‘I’m not following you?’

‘Change your transfers to cash withdrawals against the Massive. Change the codes. Make it look like you supplied Sutler with cash. Can you do that?’

‘It’s possible, but why that account? This project has a high profile.’

‘Monkey, Paul. Think monkey. Change the codes, those codes are yours, no one else will notice. That’s the first step. Second and this is important I want you to erase all of the personnel information you have on Stephen Sutler, anything non-financial, anything extra­curricular, private emails, anything like that, and when he comes in tomorrow, I want you to follow his instructions and divide the funds marked for his project into four new operational accounts. Sutler has the details for the new accounts. He has it all worked out. Do exactly what he asks. Make those transfers, and make sure the full amount assigned to HOSCO for the Massive leaves your holdings. Divide it however he tells you into the four new accounts: one, two, three, four. Load them up. In addition, he has a secured junk account, and I want you to attach that junk account to your dummy highway project. Fatten it up with two-fifty, let him see the amount. Show him the trans­fer. That’s five accounts, Paul. Four accounts attached to Stephen Sutler, and one to the highways. I want all five of them loaded. Do you understand me?’

Howell said he understood.

‘Attach Sutler’s junk account to the Saudi border project. Keep it buried. I don’t want it found. If you have to route it through other accounts then go ahead and do that. Don’t keep any record of these new accounts yourself. You understand? It’s important they can’t be found. Once this is done, after Sutler has gone, Central-CIPA will catch any irregularities with HOSCO’s holdings regarding the Massive. Leave everything to Baghdad.’

Howell said he didn’t understand.

‘It’s simple. All you have to do is delete Sutler’s records. Delete all of the information you have about him, and transfer the money into the new accounts. Tomorrow morning, when Sutler makes his visit, you’ll do exactly what he asks, which includes making a deposit to a junk account for his personal use. Hide that account with your road­way project. Once you’re done just let him leave.’

‘But I handle funding and disbursement, they’ll know I’ve had a hand in this. Sutler will tell them he has nothing to do with it.’

‘Paul.’ Geezler spoke carefully. ‘To my knowledge you’ve helped yourself to four hundred and fifty thousand dollars of HOSCO’s money. You’ve spent this on your family, on visits and vacations you did not need – and you tell me the money is gone. I also understand you have a considerable stockpile of equipment at Camp Liberty, which includes military vehicles and hardware. Whichever way you look at this your work with Southern-CIPA is over. Now, you can try to fix this by yourself, I don’t mind, it’s up to you. You can continue to move money from one place to another until someone else finds out what you’re doing. You can keep on going as you are, Paul, and dig yourself a little deeper. You can hope that no one else is going to check those fraudulent transfer requests or the empty accounts – or – you can let me help you. I’m not saying this won’t be painful, but I can offer you a respectable exit. I guarantee. No prosecution. You keep what you’ve taken, no one will be looking for it, and if everything goes well, you’ll see a future in the civil sector, which will keep you as comfortable as you could hope to be. That’s my offer. A solution. If you do exactly what I’ve asked, everyone will be looking for Sutler. You understand? Sutler. And Sutler is going to disappear and no one will find him. Sutler is the monkey in this scenario, Paul. So you need to think carefully about how you’re going to manage this. Like I told you, this isn’t a negotia­tion. But I can promise that nobody will see the game while they’re looking for Sutler.’

‘Does David know about this?’

‘Paul, we aren’t discussing what the division chief does and does not know. We’re discussing the decisions you need to make.’

Howell worked through the night, certain that Geezler was turning this to his advantage, although he couldn’t see how. For three hours he sought out and shredded documents and deleted files and correspon­dence from his computer. He drank while he worked, sensing the night about him and the limits of the compound. No stranger to revising the past, he collated HOSCO employment files, design-build bid sheets and qualfication statements, site-reports, and requisition sheets – every scrap relating to Sutler – and document by document he removed the staples, separated the pages, and fed them into the machine. The way the paper jerked into the wheels, the way the information could still be read along the cuts, until the strips started to curl, held his attention. The paper would need to be burned. There were people, in archives, in Europe, who spent their days reconstructing shredded doc­uments, undertaking a tedious archaeology of a culture, reconstituting petty deeds and business piece by piece. Everything here would be sent to the burn pits. Everything here would become smoke and ash.

Done, he called Paul Geezler. ‘He’s gone. Sutler doesn’t exist.’

Geezler’s voice sounded ghost-like, distant. ‘Did you change the codes?’

‘I have.’

‘Is there money for him?’

‘I’ll do that tomorrow.’

‘Make sure it happens.’

‘And you trust him?’

‘He carries no risk. Even if he’s caught.’

Howell emptied the waste into a sack marked ‘confidential: secure/ burn’. Tied the neck and took the sack to the outer office where it sat with other such sacks. All quiet, unusually so; he walked about the office with a kind of envy rising in him. Tomorrow, at midday, Sutler would walk out of the office and evaporate. It wasn’t often a man could make a clean start. Shortly after, Central-CIPA would raise the alarm about the misappropriated funds, and Howell would step back and watch everything unfurl. The next four weeks would be difficult. He would be suspended, without doubt, moved sideways, while every expenditure the authority had authorized would be inspected – but he wouldn’t have to pay back the money.

1.3

The first convoy arrived pre-dawn. A gut-rumble of thirteen trucks packed, brimful, with nine to eleven tons of industrial, medical, and military waste, alongside two supply trucks with food and equipment. The ruckus stirred Ford into action. Inside this early chaos he could distinguish the sing-song voices of the men, the hiss, crank, and slam of gears, of brakes and cab doors. The desert busy with industry as the trucks were dispersed to the burn pits: black rectangular craters into which the waste would be dumped and incinerated. The hot stink of aircraft fuel and scorched rubber overpowered the air and mingled with a deeper faecal stench. No more than four of the five pits burned at the same time, each sending up a roiling column, red at the base and bright with sparks, black fat-thighed legs stomping through a colourless sky. The smoke leaned first then flattened out as an alter­nate horizon, a skirt-line haze. Everything depended on the wind: the pits being set two to the west, three to the south-west, and two east of the living quarters, nothing more than a straight row of Portakabins that faced the machine shop, a grey-barrelled Quonset hut.

Ford had followed Paul Geezler’s advice and packed only two changes of clothes and what money he had into a black backpack. He changed his shoes for boots and left his room with laundry strewn over a chair, with three books and bottled water beside the bed, his papers and drafting equipment on a small table with rulers, pens, protractor, a long roll of paper, a manual of instructions from HOSCO – and on the floor a stack of toilet rolls and the sealed jar of scorpions. He began to consider excuses, reasons to leave: trouble at home, bad news, a fail­ing relative or business, but none seemed credible as everything about Ford spelled out his solitary nature. Ready at the door he watched Gunnersen and Kiprowski unload the two HOSCO supply trucks, which needed to be emptied before the sun hit the wagons and the containers became too hot to work inside. Gunnersen hauled packs of canned and boxed supplies to the tailgate then tossed them down to Kiprowski, his gestures glib and swift however heavy the package. He called out the items as he threw them, wiped his brow, and instructed Kiprowski on where they should go. Samuels, Clark, Pakosta, and Spider still worked the pits, and the trucks returned one at a time, motors droning as they climbed the hill.

Ford decided on Kiprowski as his escort to Southern-CIPA, this being necessary business and Kiprowski being the only man he could trust.

The sun hit at an angle, pink on the huts and the side of the truck, already severe, hot enough to sear, and not yet midsummer. With the vehicles unloaded the men returned from the pits. Clark ran ahead, shrieking with a hoarse cat-call, naked except for his boots, and shot into the sunlight, his thighs and backside covered with HOSCO stickers (Manufactured in Virginia with Pride). The men whooped and hollered as Clark, white and skinny with red hair, red arms and a red neck, ran in breakneck circles, kicked back dust, and punched his fists into the air.

With Kiprowski in the seat beside him, Clark and Pakosta in the bucket seats ahead, Ford worked hard to keep his thoughts ordered, but understood nothing more about why he needed to leave Camp Liberty than when Geezler had made the call – and suffered four long hours of if s and whats and counting down. The promise from Geezler of two hundred thousand, in sterling, seemed unimaginable. Two hundred thousand: enough to climb out of any trouble, enough to pay off a few debts, and then some, just as long as he did exactly what was asked. With this money Ford would settle his conscience and start over. He knew Geezler well, and trusted that some kind of clarity would come as soon as he arrived at the Regional Government Offices: Finance Division, Southern-CIPA. The craft rode up, steep and unsteady, broke through the grey smokeline and levelled out above the haze. Beneath him lay a last glimpse of the burn pits, five hard black oblongs with a sooty trails dusting the desert, the cabins and Quonset already lost to view.

He saw no chance of escape. As they approached Amrah City the craft dropped in stuttered steps to avoid attack – a message came to Ford via the pilot: business at Southern-CIPA would need to be brief. Howell had other appointments. He had time to make the transfers, just about, but any discussion of the project, that over-view he’d asked for, wasn’t going to happen today. Kiprowski and Pakosta bickered over a small backpack, some fresh awkwardness breaking between them. He regretted his decision to allow Pakosta and Clark along. He also regretted his decision that they should wear the uniforms Howell had provided. On landing, Kiprowski became so restless that Ford began to wonder if he was somehow involved.

The offices for Southern-CIPA sat in the grounds of a former school in the centre of Amrah City. A perimeter fence and blast wall followed the rough circumference of the playground and nominally protected the offices from the covered market and a row of businesses – although most were empty, the glass shot out of the fronts, the walls blackened in a recent attack, the owners returned to Kuwait and Saudi, some to Iran. The school itself was long gone, firebombed then blasted with rockets until nothing remained but a level lot. The painted outline for a mini-soccer pitch still visible on the concrete slabs.

HOSCO had provided the buildings, the same prefab units as the cabins at Camp Liberty, dropped onto blocks and welded one to the other. Ford didn’t like to think about the kind of people who would bomb a school. Burn it down then blow it away. The fact that the new regional government sited their offices on the very same spot seemed ironic and prescient. An invitation. A school smell haunted the new offices, a sourness, not quite the end-of-day musk of unfresh bodies, but some reedy tang that stuck with the place. In meetings he felt this odour creep up on him. The longer the meeting, the more he held his breath, the less he talked.

*****

Ford unravelled the plans across the Deputy Administrator’s desk and took care not to displace the many objects or damage the paper – Howell, with his practised mid-Atlantic accent, loved his tat: the glass pen-holder, the fountain pens, the name plate, the weathered base­ball, the photos of his wife, son, and daughter, and more framed on the wall behind the desk (Howell shaking hands with heads of state, Howell beside the few celebrities that paused on their way to Camp Anaconda or from Camp Navistar). Everything set just so. In all of his visits Ford had yet to see the Deputy Administrator sit at the desk. The man liked to pace. He’d heard stories about Howell at Camp Liberty from Pakosta, rumours that didn’t match what he knew.

The maps demonstrated Ford’s craft as a draughtsman and his serious approach to the project. Howell unrolled the sheets one by one, and muttered ‘Ah, our legacy,’ a little sarcastically. ‘The Massive.’

The plans sketched in soft blue pencil, a pleasing exactness to the lines. Layer one: the existing camp with the huts and burn pits. Layer two: the proposed work quarters and fabrication huts. Layer three: the burn pits dug out and in-filled. Layer four: the basic structures for water, power, sewage. Layer five: the airfield expansion. In a series of twelve overlapping sheets a small compound for remote waste dis­posal became the basic structure for a new military base and new city.

Howell, owlish, white hair and wire glasses; cool, disinterested, moved around the table and leafed slowly through the plans despite the earlier warning that he would be busy. He muttered a complaint that Ford should not have allowed his men to wear uniform. ‘Not here,’ he said, ‘they only wear these uniforms when they accompany me. They aren’t legitimate officers.’ Uninterested in a reply, Howell read then raised his hand, indicating that Sutler should wait as he left the office.

Ford waited, first he leaned against the table, then he stood upright with his arms folded. He took in the room. Two iron safes backed against the wall, designed to be built into vaults, they were set instead side by side and took up a quarter of the space. Beside them a row of glass cabinets of sport trophies and more framed photographs. A wall clock mounted opposite the desk. Already eleven o’clock, barely one hour left. He expected Howell to return with the military police. He wondered if they knew his name, and how they might have discovered him. The warrant will be issued at noon.

Ten minutes later, Howell came to the door alone and asked if Ford had set up a junk account. ‘You’ve done this already?’ The man could

not remember. ‘And the other accounts, is everything set up?’

‘Yes,’ Ford appeared surprised.

‘You have the details?’

Ford searched through his documents and found the handwritten list of numbers.

‘Have you spoken with Paul Geezler about the accounts? You know the restrictions on the operation accounts? I can make the trans­fers but anything above over twenty-five is automatically flagged to Central-CIPA. Payments or transfers.’

Ford nodded, although he appeared uncertain.

Howell held out his hand for the list of account numbers and transfer amounts. ‘One moment.’ His mouth tightened in thought. ‘Four operations, one junk. How much did Paul agree for the junk account? Two? Or two-five?’

Howell retreated back through the door saying he would make it two-five. Two, or two-five? All a little freakish to be speaking in single numbers and mean not two dollars, but two hundred thousand dollars; not two dollars and fifty cents, but two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. A tidy two-five. Handsome payment for six weeks’ work.

Ten minutes later, at exactly eleven-fifteen, Howell returned smiling, pleased with himself. ‘I’ve written the default access codes next to the account numbers. Don’t keep the account numbers and the pass codes together. Have you set the security level before? Do you rotate your pass codes?’

Ford said he didn’t understand, and Howell winced.

‘Unless you set the security your accounts will be vulnerable. This is all the information you need to access them, unless you set an addi­tional line of security.’

Ford thought there was some mischief in Howell’s tone. He looked blankly at the numbers. Howell drew his laptop round to show him, and asked Ford to open the HOSCO website and sign in. ‘To stop anyone else from gaining access you need to set the security to an appropriate level.’

Ford opened the site, checked into Finance. Howell pointed at the screen.

‘Click there – Privacy. Enter. Type in the number that starts HOS/JA.

That’s your junk account. There at the top. Click Hide. Only you can see the account now. Click there for security.’

The screen turned black, then the account number reappeared, and then the balance.

‘See. In a minute that zero will change.’ They watched the screen, but the figure didn’t change. ‘Give it a moment.’

Howell checked the account number against Ford’s note. ‘While we’re waiting you can set the security level. You can set up to eight sets of codes to access the account, anything between four and twelve characters.’ Howell straightened up. ‘I’ll leave you to it. If you take too long it will lock you out.’

Ford stared at the screen. Kiprowski waited behind him, and he sensed a hostility toward Howell. At the bottom of the screen a clock ticked down from ninety. Anxious to complete this, Ford set the secur­ity at level four, which opened four screens, demanding one new code per screen. Struggling for an idea, Ford used the numbers for the new operational accounts.

Once the codes were entered the screen again turned black, and Ford closed the laptop.

While he waited for Howell, he began to wonder if the money was transferred. If Geezler was as good as his word. He opened the computer again, entered Finance, and checked the Accounts tab. He clicked on the junk account and the first screen appeared. 1 of 4. When he mistyped the site immediately shut down and the screen went blank.

Nervous now, he went to try again, but Howell returned.

‘Did you manage?’ Howell looked at the laptop screen. ‘What are you doing?’

‘I set the security level. I typed in a wrong number.’

‘How many times?’

‘Just the once.’

‘You only have three attempts before it locks you out.’ Howell straightened up. ‘They used to call these hostage accounts. They’re designed to be secure. If it locks you out you won’t have access. The transfer’s been made, so the money will show in the account soon. It’s supposed to be instant, but the connections aren’t as fast as we’d like – like everything else around here.’

Howell again excused himself and Ford shut the computer down, then folded the paper back into his pocket, aware that if he was going to leave the opportunity was right before him. Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars came close to the fee that Geezler had promised. Dollars not sterling, but close enough to be good enough. He began to sense a design behind Geezler’s call, a design which looked to his best interests.

With no sign of Howell returning, Ford turned to Kiprowski and noticed that the boy was sweating, looked ill-at-ease, unwell, his hand to his stomach. Every occupant of Camp Liberty succumbed at some point to flu-like symptoms, chills and shivers and night-sweats, a stomach that cramped and couldn’t hold water. Each one of them suffered skin irritations and nose bleeds. Ford blamed the fumes from the burn pits. The men blamed toxic agents, biochemical compounds. He told Kiprowski to sit down, but the boy signalled that he wanted to remain standing, he just needed a moment.

The boy’s anxiety increased his own. Still, Howell did not return. Would they arrest him now? Was this all some elaborate delay? Howell appeared to have no awareness of the impending arrest.

Kiprowski leaned back against the second safe and clutched a kitbag to his stomach, his face white and damp.

Ford hooked his backpack over his shoulder – there would be no better opportunity – and walked to the door. A corridor cut between the offices, at one end a wall, at the other an emergency exit. He thought to say something to Kiprowski, but found himself walking before he’d properly considered what to do, knowing that if he used the door an alarm would sound. The pressure of time, a desire to be out, gone from Southern-CIPA, away from smarmy Howell, the baby-sick stink of the offices, from Kiprowski’s sweating – everything compounded the fact that he was running out of time. Thirty minutes, less perhaps, now twenty-eight minutes: no time at all. Almost at the door, ready to push the bar, he turned to see Kiprowski running toward him full-pelt, arms beginning to rise to shield his head. And then chaos.

The blast came as a pulse, a punch that knocked Ford off his feet and battered him through the door, throwing him out so fast that he did not know what this was: inside and upright one moment, and in another rolled and shoved, flung pell-mell – the air about him a soup, a welter of heat, of collapsing walls, of plasterboard and ceiling tiles, of powdered glass. The atmosphere, even as it blackened, sparked about him.

He landed on his back, his boots stripped from his feet, his hands and face bloody, his ears raw with shrieks, his body numb, clothes ripped and pecked. With chaos descending he scrambled out of the smoke, deaf to the rapid crack of gunfire.

Listen. There’s a problem and it can’t be solved.

Visit thekills.co.uk for the multimedia content of The Kills

Excerpted from The Kills by Richard House. Copyright © 2013 by Richard House. First published by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson – Extract

Almost English
Prologue

Thursday 29 December 1988

They do not know it, but the wolf is already at the gate.

*****

Seven o’clock on a moonlit night at the end of December; a terrible time for a party, and the guests are about to arrive. After the complex agony of invitations, the expense, the whipping of cream, the residents of Flat Two, Westminster Court, are almost too tired to greet them, yet there is so much still to be done. They have been up since five in a fury of efficiency, wiping the underside of ornaments, hoovering beneath the many rugs, rolling pastry, slicing cucumbers: innumerable tasks if this evening is to be perfect, as it must be. And now, while Marina’s grandmother and great-aunts rest on their beds, Marina and her mother stand in front of the wardrobe in Marina’s little room, pretending not to panic.

‘Can’t I just wear my school jumper?’ asks Marina. ‘Lambswool’s smart.’

‘Maybe not enough, sweetheart,’ says Laura, her mother. ‘You know they hate . . .never mind. What about that green dress?’

‘Grotesque,’ says Marina.

‘Where’s your long skirt, then? Oh Lord. What does your grandmother say?’

‘I don’t know,’ says Marina, ominously wet-eyed. ‘I look repulsive in everything. I-’

Dar-link,’ says a voice from the doorway. It is Marina’s grandmother, not resting at all: Rozsi, eighty today and not a woman one disappoints. ‘Vot-a-pity you don’t vant to look pretty. Look, I have this.’

Marina turns round and sees the blouse Rozsi is holding out to her: olive satin with a leaping gazelle motif. ‘I . . .’ she says. ‘I think-’

‘And Laura, darling,’ says Rozsi. ‘Tonight you also try.’

Laura’s mother-in-law is not easy to ignore. One does not become a major figure in the world of Ladies’ Underclothing if one is weak. Laura swallows. ‘Yes,’ she says. ‘Of course I will.’ She frowns at herself in the wardrobe mirror: her wet hair, her fair apologetic Midlands skin. Save me, she thinks, as the liver-spotted arm withdraws. ‘Marina, love. Your kilt?’

‘I could,’ says Marina doubtfully. She lowers her voice. ‘Mum, I . . .I wondered . . .can we talk?’

Usually, this would make Laura’s heart beat faster. However, she is less vigilant than usual, thinking of all that dill still to chop. ‘About what?’ she asks distractedly.

‘It’s complicated. I-’

Dar-link,’ they hear again from the doorway. ‘Hurry. We have still to set out the sair-viette.’

‘Coming,’ says Laura. ‘Sweetheart,’ she whispers to her daughter, ‘we’ll talk later. I promise. OK?’

PART ONE

CHAPTER ONE

How the world loves a party, particularly one in honour of a great age attained. Some of the guests, being quite as old and impatient as their hostess, have arrived early, with enormous boxes of chocolates and expressions of defiance. Every time the intercom buzzes, Marina or her mother has to rush over to let them in. It would have been easier to have left the street doors open, but the residents of ugly old Westminster Court are security conscious, for reasons of their own. Here in the barely-respectable depths of Bayswater, some stranger tries to gain admittance once or twice a night. It is better to be sure and so the doors are shut.

In any case, downstairs in Flat Two the noise is incredible. Everyone is eating, smoking, gossiping; they are not thinking about unwelcome visitors.

*****

The guests who hurry in from the shabby street in the drizzle do not, at first sight, look like they could possibly be the source of so much noise. If you had happened to come across them as they took their cold constitutionals in Hyde Park this afternoon, they would have seemed perfectly normal elderly Londoners, looking forward to a quiet night in with a cup of tea and a chop and the Radio Times.

At least, that is how they think they seem.

But come a little closer. ‘Dar-link’ seems to be their usual form of address. Are not their hand gestures a little more extravagant than those found in Surrey, their eyebrows more dramatic, their hair swept back like something from Nosferatu? They seem both more formal and more exuberant than you might expect, as if you had wandered into a theatre dressing-room of the 1950s, not a cramped West London basement flat. Their bags contain poppy-seed pastries as long as your forearm; velvet-packed pralines, smuggled by fur-wrapped pensioners on the overnighter from Berne. Their perfume smells like the air in a hundred department stores. What are they speaking? Nothing you know, no rolled ‘r’s or recognisable sounds but either an entirely impenetrable language – megmásíthatatlan, örökkévalóság – or a distorted English, full of dactyls which dust familiar words – ‘Pee-codilly’ or ‘vosh­ingmochine’ or indeed ‘Vest-minstaircourt’ – with snow and fir and darkness.

Oh. Hungarian. Now it all makes sense.

*****

So where is little Marina, granddaughter of the house? Is she sitting humbly at the feet of an dashing old émigré? Is she having her hand kissed by a young accountant, being complimented on her embroidered apron? She was here a minute ago, beautifully dressed for the party – not perhaps in the height of fashion, but in the circumstances . . . Besides, she is always so polite, such a credit to her relatives. Very strange: where has she gone?

Boldog születésnap!’ Happy birthday, cry the guests to Rozsi. ‘Kezét csókolom,’ I kiss your hand. Some of them actually do it. There is also a great deal of cheek-kissing: the very young led by the hand to pay homage to the elderly.

Yoy, dar-link! I rare-member you ven you vere so high!’

These people make the French look reserved, and the English costive. And, at the centre of this kissing, cheek-pinching maelstrom are tonight’s hostesses, two of the generations resident in this little flat: three old women and an abandoned wife.

*****

Marina, known tonight as ‘Mor-inaka’ or Maza, to rhyme with ‘Pots-a’, is in charge of coats. Furs and sheepskin and mackintoshes already fill the hall cupboards; the twin beds in her great-aunts’ room lie buried under a sea of headwear, although they are far from the Endless Steppe. Nevertheless, the piles of protective outer garments keep growing: berets and fedoras; gloves like warm leather claws.

The air stinks of tuberose, caraway and garlic: the universal scent of central European hospitality. But Marina is not hospitable. After only an hour her skin is tender with cheek-pinchings; she has been matchmade, prodded and instructed beyond endurance, and the night is young. Soon they will come to find her, to admire the shape of her fingernails, the thickness of her lashes, their eyes peeling back her clothes, weighing her like fruit. This is not new. She has been brought up to accept the questions and kisses as if nothing could please her more, however much lava is boiling inside. The problem is that Marina has changed. She can bear their scrutiny no longer, because her life is a disaster, and it is her fault. She betrayed them and escaped them, and now she wants to come back.

Be careful what you wish for.

This is one of the wise and inspiring precepts she has been gathering lately; she has forty-three so far, six in Latin, but they haven’t helped at all. They did not save her from making the worst choice of her life: Combe Abbey. Boarding school. She had wanted to be different, to escape just for the sixth form, and now she is reaping what she sowed.

Five more terms to go.

She is sitting on the edge of the larger bed: that of Zsuzsi, the younger of her two resident great-aunts, the beautiful one, who has a silk pillow to avoid facial wrinkles. Zsuzsi would be disgusted at me, she thinks, wiping her nose and avoiding her own reflection in the three-way dressing-table mirror. Crying is ugly and so, to stop herself, she bites down on the beads inside her lower lip for the taste of courage: blood and iron. Flawed as she is, with an incorrect ratio of leg to torso and freckles everywhere, she must be courageous. Women of her family always are.

*****

In the sitting-cum-dining-room, the party is reaching its climax. There is so much food: cold sour-cherry soup, chicken paprika, buttered noodles, stuffed cabbage, red cabbage, sweet-and-sour cucumber salad, cold krumplisaláta, made with gherkins and chives and hot paprikás krumpli with sausage. Somebody has tracked down the last carp, or pike, or perch, in London and jellied him – it looks like a him – with carrots. Although it is of dubious provenance – not from Lake Balaton but a pond near Weybridge – all agree that it is wonderful. Rozsi’s sisters, virginal Ildi and beautiful Zsuzsi, beam like angels through the steam. Schnitzel; goose-liver pâté; Polish salami; Ildi’s famous palascinta stuffed with ground walnuts and rum, with lemony curd cheese and raisins or, in the unlikely event of a vegetarian guest, with spinach and only the tiniest taste of bacon. Someone has even brought a large curled ox-tongue, which looks exactly as one might fear. And, alone in the darkness of the kitchen, touched with pinky-yellow haze from the fanlight to the communal stairwell, this evening’s culinary highlight is waiting: iles flotantes, known here as madártej or birds’ milk; bosomy islands of caramelised egg white, half-subsiding into an inland sea of vanilla custard, suspended in a Czech lead-crystal bowl.

Von-darefool,’ say the guests: a rare comprehensible word in an opaque wall of conversation. They are comforted to know that Ildi, although eighty-two, is cooking the food they remember: still pressing dumplings through the nokedli-machine, chopping veal-bones, melting lard. They are a wonderful family, aren’t they, all things considered? Admittedly not quite as they were but then, dar-link, who is? They are bringing Marina up terribly well, despite everything: so respectful, so polite, and now she is at that school for English aristocrats – well, who knows what might happen?

*****

There are many cousins here, all with mad diminutives: Pubi or Gobbi or Lotsi. The wife of one of them has trapped Laura by the window, and is cross-examining her on behalf of them all. ‘So,’ she says. ‘Dar-link. Tell me sum-sing –’

Despite living at close quarters with elderly Hungarians for over a decade, observing their habits like a less successful Jane Goodall; despite the fact that she was once married to Rozsi’s son and has produced Rozsi’s only granddaughter, Laura does not have a diminutive. One cannot catch Hungarianness; they welcomed her and Marina into their home, have kissed and nourished them endlessly, but Laura remains a puzzling pet.

‘So!’ she says. ‘I mean I can’t-’

Vot are you doing?’

‘Sorry?’

Pro-fession-allyspeaking. You know I am once mus-e-um director? Vair-y big museum in Czecho,’ she says complacently, bracelets clanking on her loose-skinned arm. ‘But you? You are not still reception-girl for von-darefool doctor?’

‘Oh – the surgery? Yes, yes I am.’

The cousin, or cousin’s wife, shakes her aged head. She is wearing Capri pants, or what Rozsi would call ‘a little troo-sair’, and a blouse and waistcoat; perfect, if alarming, lipstick; huge glamorous glasses and a bronze puff of hair. Compared to the others, she is dressed casually; it is almost a slight.

‘And,’ the cousin’s wife continues, offering Laura a pink Balkan Sobranie, ‘you are lonely, yes?’

‘No!’ says Laura, stepping back.

‘Fortunate, to live with the others, but lonely. So. I know.’

‘Not at-’

‘Of course now little Mor-inaka is at vot-you-say board school-’

‘Boarding school, yes, bu-’

‘The evenings, the weekend. Vot are you doing with so much time? You are learning a language? Instrument?’

‘Er . . .’

‘Do not tell me,’ stage-whispers the cousin’s wife, ‘you are having boy-friend?’

‘Me? No, not . . . not at all!’

‘Because of course without Pay-tare . . . vell.’

Laura has been expecting this all evening. Given the number of Hungarians present, their rampaging curiosity and lack of embarrassment, she knew it would come. Poor Rozsi; they can hardly ask her. The disappearance of Peter, Rozsi’s younger son, and his abandonment of Laura his wife and Marina his child, is not for general discussion. Laura, however, is fair game.

‘You hear from him again?’

‘Peter? No, gosh, never. Not since, you know, that first time, there was a, a card he sent to-’

‘Yes, yes, of course I see this. You do not know where he is, all these years – tair­-ible. You cry and cry, don’t tell me, dar-link,’ she says, thumping her fragile-looking breastbone; she has, Laura is certain, been happily married to the cousin for many decades.

The questions keep coming. At least her inquisitor is , as she reminds herself ceaselessly, so affectionate; they all are. When Laura visits her quiet father in Kestonbridge, the Cumbrian village to which, after her quiet mother’s death, he quietly retired to a bungalow, people who have known them for twenty years are still hard-pressed to greet her. Here, they embrace her like a daughter, albeit a disappointing one. Warmth, she tells herself once again, is not to be sniffed at. Since taking them into Westminster Court after Peter walked out, Rozsi has refused to let them consider leaving, even after Ildi was mugged on an Acton bus and moved in, and then widowed Zsuzsi followed. They share their food with her. It is like being raised by wolves.

The problem is that they think they know her. They do not realise that, however sweetly Laura smiles, however demurely she answers, there is somewhere she would prefer to be, something she would rather be doing. And someone, of course, which nobody else must know.

They never will. The idea that, after over a decade of chaste abandonment, Rozsi’s shy daughter-in-law might have, well, needs, has not crossed their minds. However, there are no secrets here, particularly from one so observant as Marina.

Could Marina conceivably have guessed?

Please, God, not yet. Still, Laura worries. With so many inquisitors stuffed into this little flat, no corner where secrets hide, or are hidden, is safe.

Nev-airmind,’ the cousin’s wife is saying cheerfully, putting her bony hand through Laura’s arm and frog-marching her back into the throng. ‘One day when you are old vom-an like me you understand. Men leave. Children leave. All that is left is death.’

*****

With a roar from the crowd, Rozsi stands.

To the casual Englishman, were one present, she might appear as other grandmothers: reading-glasses on a chain, worn wedding-ring. Do not be deceived. Rozsi is unusually clever and fearless even by her compatriots’ standards. Her younger son Peter, Laura’s former husband, used to call her Attila, with reason. Laura, whose references are more prosaic, thinks of her as Boudicca dressed as Miss Marple. This is not a woman one ignores. She has a white bun and black eyebrows, her cheeks are soft and age-spotted but consider the cheekbones underneath: you think she forgives easily? Think again.

Her cake, as is correct and traditional, is not a birthday cake at all, but simply her favourite, a rum and walnut dios torta, made by her devoted elder sister Ildi last night. Rozsi, remember to blow the candles out, for luck.

Haaapy Birsday to you…

Rozsi looks, all agree, very well. Tonight, in her good dark red dress with gilt buttons, she could not be beautiful; she is too severe for that. But striking, handsome even, like a relatively glamorous Russian spy. Why should Rozsi care about beauty: the smartest of the sisters, a career woman for all these years? And isn’t her life at eighty something to marvel at? Despite everything – that terrible business with her poor late husband and then Pay-tare disappearing – to be working still is remarkable. Wonderful. Look at them now, see how Marinaka loves her grandmother; Rozsi will never be lonely. Isn’t that something else to be grateful for?

Haaapy Birsday to you…

The cameras flash at Rozsi and, to be truthful, a little more often at her younger sister Zsuzsi, the beautiful one, with her lovely skin and her good teeth and her cigaretty laugh. Those who knew the famous Károlyi girls, Kitti-Ildi-Rozsi-Franci-Zsuzsi, back in Pálaszlany over fifty years ago, claim that people would stop on the street to gaze as Zsuzsi passed by. Men were known to have killed themselves for her and marriage, then early widowhood, have not reduced her powers. Several of her suitors are here tonight, tall white-haired handsome ‘boys’ in beautiful suits: rich Bíró Eddie, globe-trotting André, Tibor with his duelling scar, still patiently waiting for her to choose after all these years.

Haaapy Birsday Dar-link Ro-ji,
Haaapy Birsday To You.

Rozsi, of course, widowed almost as young as her sister and more unjustly, has no such suitors. She lifts the knife. She smiles.


Excerpted from Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson. Copyright © 2013 by Charlotte Mendelson.
First published 2013 by Mantle, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Harvest by Jim Crace – Extract

Harvest

1

Two twists of smoke at a time of year too warm for cottage fires surprise us at first light, or they at least sur­prise those of us who’ve not been up to mischief in the dark. Our land is topped and tailed with flames. Beyond the frontier ditches of our fields and in the shelter of our woods, on common ground, where yesterday there wasn’t anyone who could give rise to smoke, some new­comers, by the lustre of an obliging reapers’ moon, have put up their hut – four rough and ready walls, a bit of roof – and lit the more outlying of these fires. Their fire is damp. They will have thrown on wet greenery in order to procure the blackest plume, and thereby not be missed by us. It rises in a column that hardly bends or thins until it clears the canopies. It says, New neighbours have arrived; they’ve built a place; they’ve laid a hearth; they know the custom and the law. This first smoke has given them the right to stay. We’ll see.

But it is the second twist of grey that calls us close, that has us rushing early from our homes on this rest day towards Master Kent’s house. From a distance this smoke is pale. No one has added greenery to darken it. But the blaze itself is less faint-hearted. It is rackety. It is a timber fire, for sure. But ancient wood. Long-felled. The years are in its smell. We fear it is the manor house that burns and that we will be blamed for sleeping through. We’d best prepare excuses now. So, if we heard the cracking of its rafters and its beams in our slumbers this morning, we must have mistaken it for the usual busying of trees and wind, or for the toiling of dreams, or for the groaning of our bones. Yesterday was harvest end, the final sheaf. We were expecting to sleep long and late this morning, with heavy shoulders naturally but with buoyant hearts. Our happiness has deafened us, we’ll say. It was only when we heard Willowjack, the master’s fancy sorrel mare, pro­testing at the smoke with such alarm, that we awoke and went to help, as help we must, for no one wants to lose the manor house.

Now that we have reached our master’s paddocks and his garths, we can smell and taste the straw. The smoke and flames are coming not from his home but from his hay lofts and his stable roofs. His pretty, painted dovecote has already gone. We expect to spot his home-birds’ snowy wings against the smoke-grey sky. But there are none.

I know at once whom we should blame. When Chris­topher and Thomas Derby, our only twins, and Brooker Higgs came back from wooding last evening, they seemed a little too well satisfied, but they weren’t bringing with them any fowl or rabbit for the pot, or even any fuel. Their only spoils, so far as I could tell, were a bulky, almost weightless sack and immodest fits of laughter. They’d been mushrooming. And by the looks of them they had already eaten raw some of the fairy caps they’d found. I did the same myself in my first summer of settlement here, a dozen or so years ago, when I was greener and less timid, though not young. I remember eating them. They are beyond forgetting. Just as yester­day, the last sheaf of that year’s harvest had been cut and stood. And, just as today, we’d faced a break from labour, which meant that I could sleep my mischief off. So in the company of John Carr, my new neighbour then, my neighbour still, I went off that afternoon to Thank the Lord for His Munificence by hunting fairy caps in these same woods. I’ll not forget the dancing lights, the rippling and the merriment, the halos and the melting trails that followed anything that moved, the enormous fearlessness I felt, the lasting fear (yes, even now), or how darkly blue the moon became that night, and then how red. I wish I’d had the courage since to try to find that moon again.

Last evening, when the twins and Brooker Higgs jaunted past our cottages and waved at us with gill stains on their fingertips, I asked these merry men, ‘Had any luck?’ They bared their sack of spoils at once, because they were too foxed and stupefied to conceal them, even though they understood my ancient closeness to the manor house. I pulled aside the dampening of leaves and inspected their few remaining fairy caps, saved for later revels, I suppose, plus a good number of golden shawls, which, stewed in milk and placed inside a dead man’s mouth, are meant to taste so good they’ll jolt him back to life. Accounting for the bulk of their sack was a giant moonball, its soft, kid-leather skin already smoking spores, and far too yellowy and dry to cook. Why had they picked it, then? Why hadn’t they just given it a satisfying kick? What kind of wayward lads were these?

Here’s what took place. This is my reckoning, calcu­lated without recourse to any constable or magistrate – and just as well, because this place is too far off from towns to number such judicious creatures amongst our livestock; we are too small, and getting smaller. Our final day of harvesting was not as joyful as it ought to have been, and not only because the crop proved so frugal in the ear. A gentleman we did not recognise was watching us reduce our barley field to stub; a visitor, a rare event, exciting and unnerving. We mowed with scythes; he worked with brushes and with quills. He was recording us, he said, or more exactly marking down our land, at Master Kent’s request. He tipped his drawing board for anyone that asked and let them see the scratchings on his chart, the geometrics that he said were fields and woods, the squares that stood for cottages, the ponds, the lanes, the foresting.

He was a pleasant man, I’d say. No more than thirty years of age and dressed much like the master, not for labour but for the open air, in sturdy boots, breeches, a jerkin, and a plain cap without feather, brooch or badge. His beard was shaped and honed to a point with wax. I have a narrow trowel that matches it. A townsman’s beard. A wealthy beard. And he was lop-sided when he moved, with a stiff arm and shoulder on his left. His was a body not well suited to the balks and bumpy edges of a field. He was a stumbler. And there was, I thought, a trace of past illness in his expression as well as in his step. But I’ve never seen a man more ready with a smile. We could not help but stare at him and wonder, without saying so, if those scratchings on his board might scratch us too, in some unwelcome way.

Still, there was essential work to finish yesterday, whatever our distractions. If we hoped for sufficient grain to last the year, we’d have to deserve it with some sweat. This summer’s yield was not yet good enough. Plenty, here, has wed itself to Leanness. At the lower, shaded limits by the dell and on the more neglected stony slopes our plants have proven miserly. They grew as short, askew and weakly as our limping visitor and so were hardly worth the reaping. But the higher field, which we left standing till the last, has always looked more sprightly – and more promising. Since spring we’ve waited with our fingers crossed as our better barley steadily renounced its green and let itself go tawny. From the lane, looking down towards the tracery of willows on the brook, the top end of our barley meadow, brist­ling and shivering on the breeze, showed us at last its ochres and its cadmiums, its ambers and its chromes. And the smells, which for so long in this slow summer were faint and damp, became nutlike and sugary. They promised winter ales and porridges. The awns and whis­kers of the barley’s ears were brittle and dry enough to chit-chat-chit every time they were disturbed, nattering with ten thousand voices at every effort of the wind or every scarper of a rabbit, mouse or bird. They said, ‘We’ve had enough. Our heads are baked and heavy now. We’re dry. Bring out your blades and do your worst.’

Reap and gossip. That’s the rule. On harvest days, anyone who’s got a pair of legs and arms can expect to earn supper with unceasing labour. Our numbers have been too reduced of late to allow a single useful soul to stay away. There’s not a hand that will escape the brittle straw unscratched. The children go ahead of us, looking for the grey of any thistle heads that have outstripped our rust-gold barley, then duck below the level ears of grain to weed out nettles, teasels, docks; ‘dealing with the grievances’, we say. The broadest shoulders swing their sickles and their scythes at the brimming cliffs of stalk; hares, partridges and sparrows flee before the blades; our wives and daughters bundle up and bind the sheaves, though not too carefully – they work on the principle of ten for the commons and one for the glean­ing; our creaking fathers make the lines of stooks; the sun begins to dry what we have harvested. Our work is consecrated by the sun. Compared to winter days, let’s say, or digging days, it’s satisfying work, made all the more so by the company we keep, for on such days all the faces we know and love (as well as those I know but do not like entirely) are gathered in one space and bounded by common ditches and collective hopes. If, perhaps, we hear a barking deer nagging to be trapped and stewed, or a woodcock begging to make his hearse in a pie, we lift our heads as one and look towards the woods as one; we straighten up as one and stare at the sun, reprovingly, if it’s been darkened by a cloud; our scythes and hand tools clack and chat in unison. And anything we say is heard by everyone. So there is openness and jollity.

The harvest teamwork allows us to be lewd. Our humour ripens as the barley falls. It’s safe to spread the gossip noisily, it’s safe to bait and goad, Who’s shar­ing wives? Which bearded bachelor is far too friendly with his goat? Which widower (they look at me) has dipped his thumb in someone else’s pot? Which blush­ing youngsters are the village spares, that’s to say those children who’ve been conceived in one man’s bed and then delivered in another’s? Who’s making love to apple tubs? Who’s wedded to a sack of grain? Nothing is beyond our bounds, when we are cutting corn.

So it was hardly a surprise yesterday that once ‘Mr Quill’ in Master Kent’s close company was attending with his survey sticks and measuring tapes to the shape and volume of our fallow field and so beyond hearing, we wondered, out loud, whether our visiting townsman had ever overcome his undisguised deficiencies to secure himself a willing wife. Was he a husband yet? And, if he was, what blushing pleasures might Mistress Quill take from such staggering and stiffness and from having such a likeness of her hairy private part upon her stum­bling lover’s chin? ‘I’d like to take a scythe to him,’ said my neighbour John. Another said, ‘I’d rather take my wooden staff to her.’ And then of course the bawdiness increased with such play on the prospect of caressing Mr Quill’s three-cornered beard and Mistress Quill’s twin attributes that every time that evening and in our com­pany he ruminated with his hand around his chin, as was his habit, the women there could barely plug their grins while their men looked on, biting their lips. ‘And have you noticed his white hands?’ one of our village daughters asked. ‘I wonder if he’s ever dirtied them . . . other than to . . .’ No, she would not finish. What she had in mind did not seem possible.

It was only when the gentleman returned in the fullness of the afternoon and stood at our backs on the bristle of the field to quantify and measure us that we began again to wonder what awaited these treasured neighbourhoods and to feel uneasy. What was he want­ing from our soil, what were his charts securing? We saw his finger wagging on the count. We heard him numbering, until he reached the paltry fifty-eight that represented us. We know enough to understand that in the greater world flour, meat and cheese are not divided into shares and portions for the larder, as they are here, but only weighed and sized for selling. Was Mr Quill the confirmation of the rumour that had gone about our doors that Master Kent was in such narrows now he was a widower that he would need to measure and sell our land? No amount of openness and jollity could raise our spirits once that fear took hold. Our observer’s ready smile was menacing.

We were slow to broadcast our alarm. But we tackled our last barley stands more silently, less lewdly – and more scrupulously, as we were being watched. Now each barking deer or woodcock call was a warning. Each darkling cloud reminded us how nothing in our fields was guaranteed. We only muttered to ourselves, too anxious to raise our voices loud enough to reach our neighbours down the reaping line. Some of the younger men set faces which declared they’d defend our acres with their lives or with the lives of anyone that crossed them. The usual silent swagger. Rather than speak up, they turned their anger on the pigeons and the rooks, and on a handful of our master’s near-white doves, which had descended on the stub and were already robbing fallen grain that, by ancient gleaning rights, should have been ours. These ‘snowy devils’, their out-of-season whiteness making them seem even more coldly pea-eyed and acquisitive than their grey and black companions, were feasting on our bread and ale, they said, and sent the children to use their slings or shower them with handfuls of grit or yell the thieves away, anything to evidence our tenancy. The air was full of wings and cries. So our final harvesting gained ground.

By my account, once our complicated working day was done and all our flat-eared barley was gathered in and carted away, the Derby twins and Brooker Higgs, unmarried men in a village dismayingly short of un­married women, set off for the woods, while most of us, the rest of us, restored ourselves at home, took stock. We shook our heads and searched our hearts, until we had persuaded ourselves that Master Kent was too good and just a man to sell our fields. He’d always taken care of us. We’d always taken care of him. Besides, what was the evidence of any sale? A bearded, skew-whiff gentleman? A chart? The counting of our heads? No, we should not be mistrustful. We should face the rest day with easy hearts, and then enjoy the gleaning that would follow it, with our own Gleaning Queen the first to bend and pick a grain. We should expect our seasons to unfold in all their usual sequences, and so on through the harvests and the years. Everything was bound to keep its shape. That’s what we thought. We were calm and leisurely. But, unlike the three bachelors, we had not found and eaten fairy caps and then concocted ways of getting even with the thieving birds, especially the white ones from the master’s cote. Nor had we stumbled on a moonball, fatter than a blacksmith’s head, but too tindery to eat. Such a dry and hollow moonball is good, as any tree scamp knows, for taking flames from here to there. It’s good, if you are so inclined, while everybody sleeps and only night’s black agents are at work, for taking fire into the master’s yards.

Of course, those fairy-headed men did not intend to kill so many of the master’s doves. Or even mean to start a fire. Their plan was only to create a little smoke and drive the birds away. But when their moonball lantern was pushed before first light into the loft, amongst the bone-dry chaff and litter that the doves had gleaned and brought inside for nesting, it wasn’t long before its smoulder took to flame and the flame, encouraged by the frenzy of flapping wings, spread along the underside of roof beams, fed by timber oils, and found the top bales of that summer’s hay. A bird will stay away from smoke. So these doves could seek the corners of their loft, or beat themselves against the roofing laths, or try to peck an opening. But who truly knows what doves might do in fires? Perhaps, a dove will simply sit and coo, too foolish to do otherwise, until its feathers are singed black, until its flesh is roasted to the bone. Whatever happened, this is certain: the stable yard this morning smells of undeserving meat. And the twins and Brooker Higgs have woken to the worst dawn of their lives.

In any other place but here, such wilful arsonists would end up gibbeted. They’d be on hooks in common view and providing sustenance to the same thieving birds they’d hoped to keep from gleaning. But, as I’ve said, these fields are far from anywhere, two days by post-horse, three days by chariot, before you find a market square; we have no magistrate or constable; and Master Kent, our landowner, is just. And he is timid when it comes to laws and punishments. He’d rather tolerate a wrongdoer amongst his working hands than rob a family of their father, husband, son. Of course, the burning down of the master’s stable and his cote, the loss of hay and doves, is not a felony that should pass unpunished entirely. If the perpetrators are identified, they can expect a beating, followed by a lengthy sojourn sleeping rough, beyond our boundaries. Some of their family stock – a pair of goats, perhaps, some weaner pigs – might well be claimed in recompense. But their lives will never be at stake, not here. So maybe it is better for the bachelors to hold their nerve, come out to fight their own fire, seem innocent, and hope that everyone will take the blaze to be an act of God. Bad luck, in other words, and not a soul to blame.

But Brooker and the twins are not practised at deceit. They’d not succeed as players on a stage as so many other renegades and cut-throats do, escaping justice in a guise. Their guilt is on display for everyone to see. They are too noisy and too keen, especially when Master Kent himself comes down, wrapped in the sleeveless mandilion his wife wove for him in the winter of her death, and stands in shock beside his rescued mare, well back, beyond the heat, to watch his stable disappear. His home and peace of mind are scorched. The guilty men do what they can to make him notice them, make him see how loyal and tireless they’re prepared to be on his behalf. Unlike the rest of us, Master Kent included, they’ll not admit to at least some errant, childlike fascination with the flames, the old and satisfying way they turn such solids into ash and air. Instead, they lead the rush to bring in water from the pond and cisterns. They make too great a show of beating back the flames with spades. The blaze has made their tongues as dry as hay. They show no fear. It is as if their lives depend upon the quenching of this fire.

Of course, they are the ones – and Brooker Higgs especially; he is the orator – who organise the hunt for those responsible. It is clear at once – as soon as he sug­gests it – that nobody is ready to believe his claim that such a fire was caused by chance or by the natural over­heating of a rick. A good rick’s as solid as a cottage, bricked with sheaves. It can sweat, and bake itself. But what could have kindled it? There was no lightning overnight. No one burning farm waste close by sent a vagrant spark across the master’s garths. No one slept in the stable block by candle-light. The master cannot be accused of having gone up amongst the doves with his tobacco pipe. No, this was done maliciously. Brooker is nodding his agreement. Whoever caused ‘this Devil’s work’, he suggests, pointing at the black remains of the ricking ladder, which only this morning he and his own accomplices leant against the stable wall for access to the dovecote, probably intended to make off with the master’s doves. To eat. Now who amongst them has so empty a stomach that they would need to steal a neigh­bour’s food? Why only last evening the master himself said he would kill a calf to mark the end of harvest and their election of the Gleaning Queen. So who amongst them would steal and eat a dove and then find them­selves too glutted to enjoy the veal? No, the finger of suspicion points not at a villager – the very thought! – but at a stranger.

There’re newcomers, come out of nowhere to the edges of our wood, somebody says, precisely as Brooker hopes they will. This informer waves his hands towards the far side of the fields and that other damper, blacker plume of smoke that all of us with eyes have seen this morning on our way to save the stable. From where we stand their smoke is still bending darkly on a breeze across the treetops.

‘We’ll call on them, I think,’ says the master mildly. ‘We’ll call on them to test what answers they provide, but not before we’ve dampened everything and made my buildings safe.’ He looks around and shakes his head. This has been a blow for him, another burden to survive. His eyes are watery. Perhaps it’s only smoke that makes them watery. ‘Well . . .’ he says, looking towards the smudgy sky above the newcomers, and lets his comment hang. He means that he is heavy-hearted at the thought – the logical suspicion, in fact – that the second plume of smoke will lead him to the dove-roasters. And then he knows his duty will demand a firm and heavy hand. I understand that this is the moment when I should raise my own hand and say my piece, report the dry moonball. Or at least I should take Brooker Higgs aside to nudge him in the ribs. But I hold my tongue instead. A moonball isn’t evidence. Nor is bad playing. Besides, I sense the mood is to let this drama run its course and die back with the flames. Today’s a rest day and we want the air to clear – to clear of danger and to clear of smoke – so that we can enjoy ourselves as we deserve. This evening there’s ale to drink, there’s veal to eat, and we will choose the prettiest to be our Gleaning Queen. I’m sure I’m not the only one who elects to hold his tongue and does not, as he should, put up his hand. We do not wish to spoil our holiday, nor will we value bales of straw and doves above our neighbours’ sons.

In fact, my hand – the left – is too damaged to be raised. I was amongst the foolish volunteers who tried to roll some of the burning bales into the yard towards the line of water buckets so that we might save at least some of the master’s winter feed, his great bulging loafs of hay. I soaked my neck-cloth in a water pail and tied it round my mouth against the smoke, and then, with neighbour Carr at my side, went into the stable block beneath the cracking timbers to see what we could save. We put our hands and chests against the closest bale, braced our legs against the paving flags, and pushed. The bale lurched forward, only half a turn. We braced to push again but this time my one hand plunged into the burning straw and smouldered for a moment. My fingertips are burnt. There’s not a hair below my wrist. My palm is scorched and painful beyond measure. I have to say a roasted man does not smell as appetising as a roasted dove. The damage is severe. The skin is redder than a haw. I do my best to chew the pain, to not create a further spectacle. Still, I am not starved of sympathy. Even the master himself takes me by the shoulders in a hug to show his pity and concern. He knows a farmer with an injured hand is as useful as a one-pronged pitchfork. No use at all, especially at harvest time. No wonder I am more concerned at the moment with my own flesh than with any stranger’s. Now I have to go back to my house and make a poultice for the wound from egg white and cold flour. Then a pinch of salt to pacify the blisters. I will have to be an invalid today. Today, at least, I will have to sit and watch the world. Whatever’s bound to happen when my neighbours reach those newcomers who’ve set up home on the common outskirts of our fields will happen without me.


Excerpted from Harvest by Jim Crace. Copyright © 2013 by Jim Crace.
First published 2013 by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin – Extract

The Testament of Mary

They appear more often now, both of them, and on every visit they seem more impatient with me and with the world. There is something hungry and rough in them, a brutality boiling in their blood, which I have seen before and can smell as an animal that is being hunted can smell. But I am not being hunted now. Not any more. I am being cared for, and questioned softly, and watched. They think that I do not know the elaborate nature of their desires. But nothing escapes me now except sleep. Sleep escapes me. Maybe I am too old to sleep. Or there is nothing further to be gained from sleep. Maybe I do not need to dream, or need to rest. Maybe my eyes know that soon they will be closed for ever. I will stay awake if I have to. I will come down these stairs as the dawn breaks, as the dawn insinuates its rays of light into this room. I have my own reasons to watch and wait. Before the final rest comes this long awakening. And it is enough for me to know that it will end.

They think I do not understand what is slowly growing in the world; they think I do not see the point of their questions and do not notice the cruel shadow of exasperation that comes hooded in their faces or hidden in their voices when I say something pointless or foolish, something which leads us nowhere. When I seem not to remember what they think I must remember. They are too locked into their vast and insatiable needs and too dulled by the remnants of a terror we all felt then to have noticed that I remember everything. Memory fills my body as much as blood and bones.

I like it that they feed me and pay for my clothes and protect me. And in return I will do for them what I can, but no more than that. Just as I cannot breathe the breath of another or help the heart of someone else to beat or their bones not to weaken or their flesh not to shrivel, I cannot say more than I can say. And I know how deeply this disturbs them and it would make me smile, this earnest need for foolish anecdotes or sharp, simple patterns in the story of what happened to us all, except that I have forgotten how to smile. I have no further need for smiling. Just as I had no further need for tears. There was a time when I thought that I had, in fact, no tears left, that I had used up my store of tears, but I am lucky that foolish thoughts like this never linger, are quickly replaced by what is true. There are always tears if you need them enough. It is the body that makes tears. I no longer need tears and that should be a relief, but I do not seek relief, merely solitude and some grim satisfaction which comes from the certainty that I will not say anything that is not true.

Of the two men who come, one was there with us until the end. There were moments then when he was soft, ready to hold me and comfort me as he is ready now to scowl impatiently when the story I tell him does not stretch to whatever limits he has ordained. Yet I can see signs of that softness still and there are times when the glow in his eyes returns before he sighs and goes back to his work, writing out the letters one by one that make words he knows I cannot read, which recount what happened on the hill and the days before and the days that followed. I have asked him to read the words aloud to me but he will not. I know that he has written of things that neither he saw nor I saw. I know that he has also given shape to what I lived through and he witnessed, and that he has made sure that these words will matter, that they will be listened to.

I remember too much; I am like the air on a calm day as it holds itself still, letting nothing escape. As the world holds its breath, I keep memory in.

So when I told him about the rabbits I was not telling him something that I had half forgotten and merely remembered because of his insistent presence. The details of what I told him were with me all the years in the same way as my hands or my arms were with me. On that day, the day he wanted details of, the day he wanted me to go over and over for him, in the middle of everything that was confused, in the middle of all the terror and shrieking and the crying out, a man came close to me who had a cage with a huge angry bird trapped in it, the bird all sharp beak and indignant gaze; the wings could not stretch to their full width and this confinement seemed to make the bird frustrated and angry. It should have been flying, hunting, swooping on its prey.

The man also carried a bag, which I gradually learned was almost half full of live rabbits, little bundles of fierce and terrorized energy. And during those hours on that hill, during the hours that went more slowly than any other hours, he plucked the rabbits one by one from the sack and edged them into the barely opened cage. The bird went for some part of their soft underbelly first, opening the rabbit up until its guts spilled out, and then of course its eyes. It is easy to talk about this now because it was a mild distraction from what was really going on, and it is easy to talk about it too because it made no sense. The bird did not seem to be hungry, although perhaps it suffered from a deep hunger that even the live flesh of writhing rabbits could not satisfy. The cage became half full of half-dead, wholly uneaten rabbits exuding strange squealing sounds. Twitching with old bursts of life. And the man’s face was all bright with energy, there was a glow from him, as he looked at the cage and then at the scene around him, almost smiling with dark delight, the sack not yet empty.

_________________________________

By that time we had spoken of other things, including the men who played with dice close to where the crosses were; they played for his clothes and other possessions, or for no special reason. One of these men I feared as much as the strangler who arrived later. This first man was the one among all those who came and went during the day who was most alert to me, most menacing, the one who seemed most likely to want to know where I would go when it was over, the one most likely to be sent to bring me back. This man who followed me with his eyes seemed to work for the group of men with horses, who sometimes appeared to be watching from the side. If anyone knows what happened that day and why, then it is this man who played with dice. It might be easier if I said that he comes in dreams but he does not, nor does he haunt me as other things, or other faces, haunt me. He was there, that is all I have to say about him, and he watched me and he knew me, and if now, after all these years, he were to arrive at this door with his eyes narrowed against the light and his sandy-coloured hair gone grey and his hands still too big for his body, and his air of knowledge and self-possession and calm, controlling cruelty, and with the strangler grinning viciously behind him, I would not be surprised. But I would not last long in their company. Just as my two friends who visit are looking for my voice, my witness, this man who played dice, and the strangler, or others like them, must be looking for my silence. I will know them if they come and it should hardly matter now, since the days left are few, but I remain, in my waking time, desperately afraid of them.

Compared to them, the man with the rabbits and the hawk was oddly harmless; he was cruel, but uselessly so. His urges were easy to satisfy. Nobody paid any attention to him except me, and I did because I, perhaps alone of those who were there, paid attention to every single thing that moved in case I might be able to find someone among those men with whom I could plead. And also so that I could know what they might want from us when it was over, and more than anything else so that I could distract myself, even for a single second, from the fierce catastrophe of what was happening.

They have no interest in my fear and the fear all those around me felt, the sense that there were men waiting who had been told to round us up too when we sought to move away, that there seemed no possibility that we would not be held.

The second one who comes has a different way of making his presence felt. There is nothing gentle about him. He is impatient, bored and in control of things. He writes too, but with greater speed than the other, frowning, nodding in approval at his own words. He is easy to irritate. I can annoy him just by moving across the room to fetch a dish. It is hard to resist the temptation sometimes to speak to him although I know that my very voice fills him with suspicion, or something close to disgust. But he, like his colleague, must listen to me, that is what he is here for. He has no choice.

I told him before he departed that all my life when I have seen more than two men together I have seen foolishness and I have seen cruelty, but it is foolishness that I have noticed first. He was waiting for me to tell him something else and he sat opposite me, his patience slowly ebbing away, as I refused to return to the subject of his desires: the day our son was lost and how we found him and what was said. I cannot say the name, it will not come, something will break in me if I say the name. So we call him ‘him’, ‘my son’, ‘our son’, ‘the one who was here’, ‘your friend’, ‘the one you are interested in’. Maybe before I die I will say the name or manage on one of those nights to whisper it but I do not think so.

He gathered around him, I said, a group of misfits, who were only children like himself, or men without fathers, or men who could not look a woman in the eye. Men who were seen smiling to themselves, or who had grown old when they were still young. Not one of you was normal, I said, and I watched him push his plate of half-eaten food towards me as though he were a child in a tantrum. Yes, misfits, I said. My son gathered misfits, although he himself, despite everything, was not a misfit; he could have done anything, he could have been quiet even, he had that capacity also, the one that is the rarest, he could have spent time alone with ease, he could look at a woman as though she were his equal, and he was grateful, good-mannered, intelligent. And he used all of it, I said, so he could lead a group of men who trusted him from place to place. I have no time for misfits, I said, but if you put two of you together you will get not only foolishness and the usual cruelty but you will also get a desperate need for something else. Gather together misfits, I said, pushing the plate back towards him, and you will get anything at all – fearlessness, ambition, anything – and before it dissolves or it grows, it will lead to what I saw and what I live with now.

Excerpted from The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin. Copyright © 2012 by Colm Toibin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.