Category Archives: December 2013

Return to Life by Jim Tucker – Extract

Return to Life

Chapter 1

A comeback kid?

Patrick, a cute little boy with long dark hair and an impish smile, was my first case. He had just turned five when I met him and his family in their home, a compact house in a small Midwestern suburb. I was there accompanying Dr. Ian Stevenson. Once “a young man in a hurry,” becoming the head of a psychiatry department in his late thirties, Ian had walked away from the ladder of academic success for an interest he would doggedly pursue for forty years—children who report memories of previous lives. Nearly eighty but with curiosity still unabated, Ian was meeting the family because Patrick’s mother had become convinced her son was his deceased half brother returned to life.

Ian viewed Patrick’s case as potentially important. Though he had published many articles and books about children who had made numerous statements that matched details of someone who had died, Ian’s best cases were all from other countries, mostly in Asia, where a general belief in reincarnation existed. His American cases tended to be weaker. They included two basic types: children who seemed to remember being a deceased family member, and children who talked about a past life but did not give enough details for a previous person to be identified. The same-family cases had the inherent weakness that the child might have overheard others discussing the deceased. While Patrick’s case was a same-family one, it had another critical feature: he had three birthmarks that appeared to match lesions on his deceased half brother, marks that had nothing to do with what he might have heard people say.

Ian arranged a three-day trip with a plan to be thorough. We would have a long interview with the family on the first day, a second one the next day to cover items we had overlooked or that we needed to clarify, and interviews on the second and third days with other people involved in Patrick’s life. We hoped the extended time with Patrick would help him become comfortable enough to talk to us about any memories he had.

We arrived at the home and sat down in the living room with Patrick’s mother, Lisa. Ian took a clipboard and a tape recorder out of his satchel, well-worn from his trips around the world. He tested the recorder and placed it on the coffee table. He began by asking Lisa about her deceased son, the one whose life Patrick seemed to be remembering. Ian asked, “That’s not troublesome to you, is it, to talk about that?” Lisa said, “No. I mean it is, but no. Where do you want me to start?” Ian asked her to begin when her son first became ill, and with an even voice, she began the story.

Kevin had been born twenty years before. Lisa, a young mother, and Kevin, her first child, were doing well despite her split from his father, until Kevin began limping at sixteen months of age. This was intermittent at first, but after about three weeks he was limping all the time, and Lisa took him to his doctor. He was admitted to the hospital for three days and underwent various tests. A bone scan appeared to be normal, but x-rays showed extra fluid in his left hip joint. The doctor thought it might be infected.

Kevin was still limping when he was discharged. He fell two days later, and doctors at another hospital found he had a broken leg. They put his leg in a cast, but it caused the little boy so much pain they took it off after three days. At that point, he couldn’t bear weight on the leg and refused to walk. Lisa took him to another doctor, an orthopedic surgeon. He ordered more x-rays, and these showed some destruction in two of the bones in his left leg. Kevin was again hospitalized. The doctor told Lisa he had a tumor in his leg. This difficult time was made even worse by the uncertainty of the situation. As Lisa said, they went through “probably a two-week period of being told he had leukemia, that he didn’t have leukemia, it went back and forth.” But the upcoming news would only be worse.

Kevin was transferred to a tertiary children’s hospital to continue the workup. Along with his swollen leg, the doctors noted his left eye was bulging and bruised and he had a nodule above his right ear that might be a tumor. They suspected a neuroblastoma, a cancer that begins in nerve tissue somewhere in the body, often in the adrenal gland above one of the kidneys, and then spreads to other places. An x-ray of Kevin’s kidneys showed a mass at the top of his left one. A skeletal survey found various lesions and an opaque area over his bulging left eye. On his fourth day in the hospital, Kevin was taken to the operating room. The doctors took a biopsy of the nodule above his right ear and inserted a central line, a large Iv, in the right side of his neck.

The biopsy confirmed the diagnosis of metastatic neuroblastoma. At least a definite diagnosis had finally been made, but it was not a good one. Kevin began treatment, getting chemotherapy through the central line. The site where the chemotherapy entered his neck became inflamed at times, but overall, he tolerated the treatment well. He also started radiation therapy that would continue after he left the hospital, including to his left eye and his left leg. After ten days, he got to go home.

Kevin seemed okay for a while. Lisa showed us pictures of him. The first one was taken before he got sick, and he is laughing, a plump baby with lots of light, curly hair. The other two are from later. They reveal a thinner, bald little boy with bruising around his left eye, which looks displaced. Too young to understand he was dying, he appears happy in both pictures, beaming in one and exploring a toy fire station in the other. They are heartbreaking.

Kevin returned to the hospital six months after his first admission. He was bleeding from his gums because the cancer had infiltrated his bone marrow and it couldn’t make enough platelets. He had also developed bruising around his right eye along with the faded bruising around his left. Lisa said he was blind in the left eye at that point. His disease was considered end stage by then, meaning the little boy would die soon, but along with a platelet transfusion, he did receive one day of chemotherapy and one day of radiation to his right eye socket. He was discharged and died two days later.

Lisa talked about all of this in a calm, unemotional manner. This may have been because Ian and I focused more on the facts than any emotions. Ian did comment that she must have been very affected by Kevin’s death, but when she gave little response, we moved on to other matters. We were not expecting her to pour out her heart to us, and we were asking a lot just to have her recount the events of his illness and death.

Lisa carried on after Kevin died. Long separated from his father, she had started dating a new man before Kevin got sick. They married following Kevin’s death, and Lisa soon gave birth to a daughter, Sarah. The couple divorced after four years, and Lisa later remarried again. She had a second son, Jason, and then, twelve years after Kevin died, gave birth to Patrick by C-section. She said that as soon as the nurses handed Patrick to her, she knew that he was connected to Kevin in some way. She didn’t have that feeling when her other children were born, but this birth was different somehow. Lisa said she felt empty after Kevin died, wanting him back every day. When Patrick, her new son, was brought to her, she imagined a weight being lifted as her grief for Kevin was released. While Lisa saw a physical resemblance between the two boys, there was a link that went beyond that.

She soon noticed a white opacity covering Patrick’s left eye. The doctors diagnosed it as a corneal leukoma. Patrick was seen by an ophthalmologist and examined periodically. The opacity shrunk after several weeks but did not completely disappear. While his vision was hard to assess with any precision when he was very young, he was essentially blind in his left eye just as Kevin had been blind in that eye at the end of his life.

Lisa also felt a lump on Patrick’s head above his right ear at the same location where Kevin’s tumor had been biopsied. When we examined Patrick, we felt the nodule above his ear. It had migrated slightly behind his ear by the time he was five, but Lisa said it was directly above the ear when he was born. It was hard, elevated, and more or less round. We measured it at about one centimeter in diameter. It was not tender at all, and Patrick let us press on it as much as we wanted.

Patrick was also born with an unusual mark on his neck. A dark slanted line that was about four millimeters long when we met him, it looked like a small cut. It was on the front of his neck on the right. This was the area where Kevin’s central line had been inserted, though we had trouble confirming which side of his neck had been used for it. When we reviewed Kevin’s medical records, we searched to find documentation of the central line’s location. We finally found one mention in an operative note that was fortunately one of the more legible handwritten notes. It listed the procedures, including “Insertion of central line (Ext. Jugular), tip in SvC or Rt. Subcl.” Translated into English, that meant the IV had been placed in the external jugular vein, which is a vein on each side of the front of the neck. As it was snaked in, the tip of the Iv had ended up either in the right subclavian vein running below the collarbone, which the external jugular feeds into, or all the way to the superior vena cava, which carries the blood from those other veins into the heart. The keys for us were that it was the external jugular, meaning the Iv was inserted into the neck, and that it was the right subclavian, meaning it was on the right side of his neck, where Patrick’s birthmark was.

One of the most inexplicable features of the case was that Patrick limped once he got old enough to walk. He had an unusual gait in which he would swing out his left leg. This matched the way Kevin had walked, since he had to wear a brace after breaking his leg. We asked Patrick to walk across the room several times, and he was still limping slightly at age five, even though he seemed to have no medical reason to do so.

When Patrick was four years old, he began talking about Kevin’s life. The first thing he said was that he wanted to go to the other house. Patrick talked about it for a while and seemed desperate at times to go there. Lisa asked him why he needed to return; was there a certain toy or clothes he wanted? He answered, “Don’t you remember, I left you there.” She answered, “Yeah, but you have me here now.” Lisa asked Patrick what their home looked like, and he said it was “chocolate and orange.” Lisa and Kevin’s home, actually an apartment rather than a house, was indeed a brown and orange building.

Patrick began talking about events from Kevin’s life, coming out with statements at unpredictable times. If Lisa tried to get him to talk about Kevin, he usually wanted no part of it. Later he might mention him out of the blue. Lisa was getting ready for work one day when Patrick asked if she remembered when he had surgery. After she told him he had never had surgery, he said, “Sure I did, right here on my ear” and pointed to the spot above his right ear where Kevin’s tumor was biopsied. Lisa asked him to describe the surgery, but he said he didn’t remember it because he had been asleep.

Another time, Patrick became excited when he saw a picture of Kevin. He had never seen it before because Lisa didn’t keep pictures of Kevin up in the house. His hands shaking, Patrick said, “Here is my picture. I’ve been looking for that.” He was definite as he said, “That’s me.” He also talked once about the small, brown puppy that stayed with the family. Lisa and Kevin had indeed kept a dog like that, one belonging to Lisa’s mother when she moved into an apartment complex that didn’t allow pets.

The week before we visited, Patrick was sitting back on the couch and asked, “Do you remember when we went swimming?” Patrick had never actually been swimming but described a day when Kevin swam in the pool at his grandmother’s apartment complex. He said his grandmother was there along with his sister’s father. He recalled how they had dunked the man’s head underwater and mimicked the sound he had made as he came up for air.

Lisa also told us that Patrick had talked with his brother Jason about heaven. When we asked Jason, he told us about a couple of instances, with Patrick once saying he wanted to take the family to heaven, especially his mother. The next morning, we visited Lisa’s sister. She also spoke about comments Patrick made about heaven. She described similarities between Kevin and Patrick, their tendencies to be soft-spoken, timid, even tremulous at times.

After that, what we hoped would be a great opportunity ended up falling flat. We took Patrick and Lisa to the apartment building where Lisa had lived with Kevin. Patrick had stopped talking about that home a while before, but we hoped that seeing it would spur his memory. We weren’t able to go inside their actual apartment, and Patrick didn’t show any signs of recognizing the building. He did say something about a race car track, which Lisa thought referred to one Kevin had there, but since he described playing with it with Jason, I didn’t know what to make of it. We did at least confirm that the building was brown and orange.

We then met Patrick’s father at his work. He said Patrick’s lesions—the opacity over his eye, the nodule on his head, and the scar on his neck—were definitely present when Patrick was born. He said Patrick hadn’t talked to him about Kevin’s life, but he had overheard Patrick talking to Lisa about it. He thought the situation was bizarre but had accepted that Patrick was remembering Kevin’s life.

We also met with Lisa’s ex-husband, the father of Patrick’s sister. He recalled all the time he and Lisa spent taking Kevin to and from medical centers. He didn’t remember going swimming with Kevin as Patrick had described. Since that would have been at least seventeen years before, that wasn’t surprising, though he did recall taking Kevin to the park one day. He had seen little of Patrick and was noncommittal about the possibility of previous lives, but he thought the situation with Patrick had helped ease Lisa’s grief. He said Lisa had been extremely close to Kevin and suffered tremendously when he died. He told us he came to the interview because he hoped our study of the possible past-life memories might help her.

By the following day, Patrick became comfortable enough to talk with us. He often spoke softly, and that tendency, combined with poor enunciation, made him difficult to understand at times. Adding to the confusion, he sometimes talked about Kevin in the third person and about things they did together. I wondered if this was because Patrick, a five-year-old boy, had memories of Kevin’s life but couldn’t make sense of being another person.

He told us about going to the zoo with Kevin and their cousin. Patrick had been to a zoo once two years before but not with the cousin, while Kevin had gone a number of times. Patrick talked about Kevin’s bedroom and its two closets. While Kevin’s bedroom actually had only one closet, it had two sliding doors that opened on both ends. Patrick described an apple-shaped “water ball,” and Lisa said Kevin had a bathtub toy like that. He also talked about going with Kevin to a ranch that had bulls. Patrick had never been to one, but Kevin had indeed visited a cattle ranch that his aunt owned.

*****

Our trip was a success. We had learned all the history from Lisa, studied documentation of Kevin’s lesions, and even gotten Patrick to describe some memories to us. Having enjoyed meeting Lisa and her family, I had a greater appreciation for the people involved in these situations. They were not just characters in the pages of Ian’s reports. They were flesh and blood, and some had experienced the human tragedies that led to the end of a life a child later seemed to remember.

After we returned home, we wanted to calculate the likelihood that Patrick’s defects matched Kevin’s just by coincidence. Not even taking the limp into account, how likely was it that a child would be born with three lesions that matched ones on a sibling? Ian had previously determined that the odds of two birthmarks matching wounds on another body by chance were about 1 in 25,000. He began with the surface area of the skin of the average adult male being 1.6 meters. He then imagined that if this area were square and laid on a flat surface, it would be approximately 127 centimeters by 127 centimeters. Since he considered a correspondence between a birthmark and a wound to be satisfactory if they were both within an area of 10 square centimeters at the same location, he calculated how many 10 centimeter squares would fit into this body surface area and found that 160 would. The probability that a single birthmark would correspond to a wound was therefore 1/160. The probability that two birthmarks would correspond to two wounds was (1/160)2 or 1 in 25,600.

Critics challenged that figure. For Patrick’s case, we decided to get some help. I met with two statisticians from the medical school and explained the situation to them. Though they seemed interested, one of them eventually sent me a report declining to estimate the likelihood. He said any calculations would oversimplify a complex system. He added, “Phrases like ‘highly improbable’ and ‘extremely rare’ come to mind as descriptive of the situation.”

Ian had been intrigued by birthmark cases for a long time. They drew on his interest in the interaction between mind and body that dated back to his mainstream days in psychosomatic medicine. The year before we met Patrick, he published Reincarnation and Biology, a two-thousand-page work, many years in the making, that covered over two hundred cases of children born with birthmarks or birth defects that matched wounds, usually fatal ones, on the body of a previous person.

While Ian was intrigued by these cases, I was initially uncomfortable with them. I didn’t see how a wound on one body could show up as a birthmark on another, even if you accepted the idea of past-life connections. A student asked about this at a talk I gave. Ian responded with a quote from Charles Richet, a Nobel Prize–winning physiologist who also studied séances and ectoplasm: “I never said it was possible. I only said it was true.”

That explanation did little for me. But Ian also wrote in Reincarnation and Biology about work that in various ways showed that mental images can produce specific effects on the body. An example was the case of a man who vividly recalled a traumatic event from nine years before in which his arms were tied behind him. During his recall, he developed what certainly looked like rope marks on his forearms. If images in a mind can produce specific effects like that on the body, and if the mind continues after death and inhabits a developing fetus, then I could see how the images could affect the fetus. It would not be the wounds on the previous body per se that produced the birthmark or birth defect, but rather the images of the wound in the individual’s mind that did it. In Patrick’s case, his marks seemed to match lesions that would have made a strong impression on Kevin: the blindness in his left eye, the scalp nodule that had been biopsied, and the IV site used for his chemotherapy.

*****

Two years later, we visited Patrick and Lisa again. Patrick had continued to say unusual things. He had talked about a life prior to the one as Kevin, this one in Hawaii. He talked about his family there and a son who died. He mentioned a statue that melted due to a volcano and how the townspeople rebuilt it. From his descriptions, his parents believed he was recalling events from the 1940s.

Several months before we met this second time, Patrick began talking one night as his mother fixed dinner. He asked, “Do you know that you have a relative that no one talks about?” He said he had met this relative in heaven before being born. He was tall and thin with brown hair and brown eyes. He told Patrick that his name was Billy and he was called “Billy the Pirate.” He had been killed by his stepfather, shot point-blank up in the mountains. He said he was upset that no one talked about him after his death.

Lisa knew nothing about any relative named Billy. When she called to ask her mother, she discovered that her mother’s oldest sister had a son named Billy. The details Patrick gave were correct. Billy had been killed by his stepfather three years before Lisa was born. The murder was never talked about in the family. When Lisa asked about the nickname “Billy the Pirate,” her mother laughed. His wildness had led to the nickname, and Lisa’s mother said she hadn’t heard it since Billy’s death. There seemed to be no way that Patrick could have ever heard about Billy or his nickname before.

*****

Scientist with a very open mind

Patrick’s story may sound familiar. I included a brief summary of it in my first book, and Carol Bowman, an author of two books on children’s past-life memories who referred the case to us for Ian’s unique type of investigation, wrote about it in one of hers. Ian had been hearing such stories for a long time. He was a singular figure. He could be the most prototypic, staid academician—formal at times and precise in his language— while exploring the strangest things. Exploring them did not automatically mean accepting them, and he never lost his analytic approach to every case he encountered. Patrick’s mother said Ian reminded her of Jimmy Stewart, a comparison that, minus Stewart’s folksiness, was pretty apt. Both were tall, lanky, distinguished older men with kindly smiles. Ian was also pleasant and supportive—unfailingly so as I took my first baby steps in the field—with a wry sense of humor he could on rare occasion use to devastating effect. His comment about a book whose author claimed was channeled from the spirit of William James, the great American psychologist and philosopher: “If the vapid writings . . . did indeed emanate from him, I can only say that this implies a terrible post-mortem reduction of personal capacities. (Survival of death with such an appalling decay of personality makes it, at least to me, a rather unattractive prospect.)”

Before focusing on this research, Ian had an accomplished academic career with dozens of publications to his credit when he arrived at the University of virginia in 1957 to be chairman of the Department of Psychiatry. He also had longstanding interests in parapsychology and the question of whether any part of our minds survives after death. He started devoting more time to those interests and stepped down as chairman after ten years to focus on them full-time, mostly on children’s reports of past-life memories. When he first began writing about the cases, journal editors knew him by his reputation from his mainstream successes. This led prominent publications to at least take note, offering respectful reviews of his various books. In a review of one of his books in 1975, JAMA, The Journal of the American Medical Association, said that “in regard to reincarnation he has painstakingly and unemotionally collected a detailed series of cases from India, cases in which the evidence is difficult to explain on any other grounds. . . .

He has placed on record a large amount of data that cannot be ignored.” Two years later, The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease devoted most of an entire issue to Ian’s work.

He was far removed from those years by the time we met Patrick. Ian had always aimed for a scientific audience, writing densely detailed reports of cases for academic readers rather than the general public. The number of such readers open to considering his work had dwindled over the years, but Ian was still trying. At the end of our first trip to Patrick’s family, we were eating dinner when Ian began discussing plans for a paper about Patrick’s case. He imagined a title of “Unexpected Correspondence of 4 Physical Abnormalities between a Boy and his Deceased Brother,” and he thought we should submit it to The Lancet, a British journal that is one of the leading medical journals in the world.

That proved to be too optimistic. Nine days after we sent the manuscript to the journal, we received a reply stating “after discussion among several editors here, we decided that it might be better placed elsewhere.” We then sent it to another journal. And another, and another. In all, we submitted the paper to six mainstream journals over the course of a year, and none of them accepted it.

We eventually included Patrick’s story in an article about several birthmark and birth defect cases that we published in the Journal of Scientific Exploration. It is produced by the Society for Scientific Exploration, an organization started by a group of academic scientists, including Ian, who had interests that the journals in their various fields were not friendly to, such as astronomers who studied UFo reports. The articles in it are thus scholarly efforts to address controversial topics. While our paper fit right in, Patrick’s case did not reach the broader academic audience Ian had hoped for.

Nonetheless, his optimism was not entirely misplaced. The year after The Lancet rejected our paper, it published a letter from Ian about the forty-two cases of twins he and colleagues had studied in which at least one of the pair claimed to remember a previous life. The letter was more than a column long, and the journal gave it a title of “Past lives of twins” without even a question mark at the end.

When Ian died in 2007, the Journal of Scientific Exploration devoted an issue to reviews of his work and to people’s remembrances of him. One was from Tom Shroder, an editor at The Washington Post who accompanied Ian on two research trips and then wrote a book about them. Shroder finished his piece by saying, “Whatever the truth turns out to be, Ian’s work, those countless files filled to overflowing with the passionate precision of his research . . . well, they are something. They are really something.”

The issue also included an article of Ian’s from 1958 that may have portended his future. Called “Scientists with Halfclosed Minds,” it was an essay Ian wrote for Harper’s Magazine that reviewed various examples of initial failure by the scientific community to recognize breakthrough insights. He warned of our tendency, especially dangerous in scientists, to reject new ideas that conflict with our previous understandings.

Ian’s awareness of this pattern did not keep him from pursuing the work he thought was important. He once told me— with a smile—that he would die a failure because he had not achieved his primary goal of getting mainstream science as a whole to seriously consider reincarnation as a possibility. That objective may have been quixotic, but Ian expressed no regrets about the course he had chosen. To the contrary, he had enjoyed the journey, having been fortunate and resourceful enough to be able to devote many years of his life to studying matters that interested him. And though he may not have convinced the whole of mainstream science, he did open a lot of eyes, including those of numerous scientists.

Throughout his life, Ian kept the attitude of open-minded inquiry he encouraged in 1958. His final paper was a wonderful summary of his last forty years called “Half a Career with the Paranormal.” He finished it by writing, “Let no one think that I know the answer. I am still seeking.”

*****

I hope you will approach the cases in this book with such an attitude. You may be tempted to think the idea of past-life memories is just too fantastic. I can understand that way of thinking. I’m not in this field because I’m a big believer in past lives, and I’m not here to promote the idea. I got involved in this work because I wanted to figure out for myself whether life after death might be possible. Even though I have become persuaded that something is indeed going on in some of the cases, I continue to consider the various possibilities for each one. I won’t bore you with those considerations as I relate the cases, but I would encourage you to be open to all of them, both the ordinary and the extraordinary.

In my first book, I gave an overview of what is now fifty years of research. With this one, I’m focusing on some remarkable cases I’ve studied in recent years, ones I didn’t include in the first book (except for Patrick’s). But I want not only to show you the phenomenon but also to make sense of it. If you’re having trouble taking this kind of work seriously, it may be because the cases can seem so outside of science, so outside of the real world. The JAMA book review notwithstanding, I suspect that’s why many people have ignored this large amount of data for so long. At the end of the book, I’ll address this concern, showing you how past-life memories can be consistent with current scientific understandings. If you are skeptical, I would challenge you to make a final determination only after you have heard all the facts. I will also explore how this phenomenon, beyond being consistent with scientific knowledge, can even lead to new insights about the true nature of reality, both about our existence in this world and about the possibility of life after death.

I hope all of us can try to emulate Ian’s attitude of maintaining a critical eye but also an open mind. In this way, you can appreciate the astonishing experiences some of these families have had, and you can consider any meaning to take from stories of children like Patrick, a little boy who may have come to this life bearing marks and memories from his dear, deceased half brother.


Excerpted from Return to Life by Jim Tucker. Copyright © 2013 by Jim Tucker.
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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Into the Cage by Nick Gullo – Extract

Into the Cage

1. How did this happen?

It started with a whisper. More than ever I’m convinced it always starts with a whisper . . .

Walking down the corridor, I hear music echoing through the walls, the crowd chanting, announcers hyping the main card—but this isn’t how or when it started. This is 2008, which is somewhat of a way station in this tale, and where we are is inside a concrete tunnel beneath the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. Cramped quarters. Fluorescent gray light distorts shadows. A metal duct overhead spews cold air, but it’s no comfort. I’m sweating, nervous. Dana White turns and flashes that iconic grin, and for a moment it’s like old times—like we’re teenagers again, ready to knock heads. “You cool?” he says.

I shrug, trying to play it off, like what waits beyond this tunnel is nothing, just a midday stroll through an empty stadium. Never mind the twelve thousand rabid fans.

No. I’m anything but cool. My stomach’s rumbling and I’ve got this taste on my tongue, like I downed a glass of questionable milk and next I’ll vomit in that passing can. But, like, pull it together, dude, because they—the PR lady to my left, the assistant holding a clipboard and a walkie-talkie, the camera guy—are all staring, and I know they’re thinking, Who is this guy? If they’re such good friends, where the fuck has he been?

And yeah, they’re right to question. It’s been eight years since Dana and I last saw each other.

Eight. Years.

Flip back through the calendar and that lands us pre-millennium. Since then, the world’s endured hanging chads, planes careening into towers, green missile flares over Iraq, a foreclosure crisis. The last time Dana and I were together was on a return flight to Vegas. Here’s the scene unfolding: I’m munching pretzels while Dana flips through a mixed martial arts (MMA) magazine. After some turbulence he leans in and whispers something. What’s that? Oh, he’s mumbling about MMA, how it could be the next thing. Clouds pass outside the window and I’m hardly listening. I’ve got pressing concerns, like should I move my young family to the Gulf Coast, swap the Vegas desert for Florida’s sandy beaches, abandon friends, and—

“I’m telling you, bro, this could be big,” he says.

I glance at the article and give him a curt nod, but I know this won’t appease him. Once Dana gets something in his head—whether it’s a new “system” for beating the roulette wheel, a hot parlay for Sunday’s games, or a guy who crossed him—forget it, you might as well toe the line. “Looks great,” I say and turn back to the window.

“I’m fucking serious,” he says.

“Yeah, all right, I heard you—huge. It could be huge.” “Asshole.”

Okay. This clearly wasn’t going to end. “What do you mean?” I say. “Like kickboxing? Or those strong-man competitions where they drag logs through the mud?”

“No, dipshit, a cage, they fight in a cage.”

“Ohhh, tough-guy matches—didn’t Mr. T win one of those?”

“You’re a gorilla.”

Of course in hindsight, I’m the idiot. Hurl the black roses, I’ll gather them all. In retrospect, this exchange is akin to Moses preaching from the mount while some fool snickers and polishes the golden calf. But understand, Dana and I were friends, and what did he know about MMA? Back then he was teaching casino executives and their wives to sidestep and throw jabs, paying the family bills as a boxing coach. Yeah, on the side he managed Tito Ortiz, a cage fighter, so there was at least a tacit connection with this new obsession—but still, to my ears, the phrase MMA elicited two events: first, the legendary 1976 Muhammad Ali versus Antonio Inoki bout, wherein the champ flew to Japan and fought under hybrid rules that allowed kicking but no grappling, jabbing but no flying knees, and resulted in an absolute farce, with Inoki on his back much of the fight, throwing heels and flailing like a tempestuous child, for which Ali suffered blood clots in his leg that threatened amputation and hobbled him for the rest of his career; and second, in 1993, the first Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) on pay-per-view (PPV).

Everyone I knew tuned in to this inaugural UFC event, all of us frothing at the prospect of various disciplines clashing in the ring: kung fu versus boxing versus Krav Maga versus sambo. Mind you, these were the heady days of Mortal Kombat and Virtua Fighter, the arcades packed with kids— no, not just kids, also grown men—battling as Kung Lao, Liu Kang, and Kage-Maru. So after forking over fifty dollars for the PPV, we expected blitzkrieg action. Bruce Lee scissor kicks. Multi-hit combos. Fatalities!

Instead, we endured two hours of mismatched fighters, untrained camerawork, and hairband synth music. Yeah, there were some exciting moments, and yeah, Royce Gracie’s Brazilian jiu-jitsu was impeccable, and yeah, he dominated all comers, and yeah, yeah, yeah, the core fans mythologize that first event and swear it was the greatest thing since Hagler versus Hearns—but to my untrained eyes all that mat work was akin to a typical high school wrestling match . . . and I was a lifelong wrestler!

Now, I know to some, the most devoted, this screams of heresy, but watch those early events and you’ll see that the production value is just a notch above early 1980s Betamax porn. Scan the replays and note Art Jimmerson feinting with a single boxing glove during his bout with Gracie, which lasted all of two minutes before Gracie wrestled the hapless boxer to the ground and submitted him. This is a prime example of a bout that elicited pre-bell whoops and whistles and post-bell groans.

And check out the morbidly obese Teila Tuli sumocharging across the ring at karate/savate champion Gerard Gordeau: Gordeau casually steps aside, Tuli crashes into the cage, falls to his knees, receives a kick in the face, and his tooth flies to the mat. At twenty-six seconds, the referee steps in, waving his hands. Now, while that was humorous, can you imagine such a hokey matchup today? And the good fights? Well, most of us didn’t know how to watch them.

Here’s Ken Shamrock summarizing one of his UFC 1 victories as a shootfighter/wrestler, which came at just 1:49 after the opening bell: “I was fighting Patrick Smith. He’s 250–0 in bare-knuckle fights. He’s undefeated. I remember the bell rings, I go in there, and Patrick throws a hard kick. I shoot on him. I take him down. I punch him a few times. I drop back down to a heel hook. I crank his heel, I break his leg. AGHHHHH! The crowd booed. They were mad. No one understood what submissions were! They were like, ‘What was that?’ Even the announcers were like, ‘He got him in, uh, some, uh, foot lock, or something . . . ’ It was like no one knew. They didn’t have an idea. Royce Gracie and myself were the only ones that really knew what submissions were, knew how to do submissions effectively in a real fight.”

I think I’m on safe ground asserting that jiu-jitsu, like wrestling or judo, requires the audience to possess at least a basic understanding of the subtle strategies at work; and unfortunately, many of us watching that first event expected everything but fighters rolling across the mat for extended periods. And once they were down, we certainly didn’t grasp what was happening.

So, no, I didn’t imagine the sport growing into anything beyond its back-room status, much less huge.

Fast-forward five years from that plane flight: I’m in Florida, working, surfing, raising our daughter—only there’s no cable television in the house (as in no CNN, no sports, no pay events, no reality TV. Nothing.) How such a thing happens is that the wife finds your young daughter lifeless in front of the television again and again, eyes glazed and thumb on the remote, and being an overprotective mother she pulls the plug and allows only DVDs through the front door. (To be fair, there was reason to worry. Once during dinner I spilled red wine on the rug and while my wife fretted with a spray bottle and towel, from nowhere our daughter blurted, “Oh, Mommy, don’t worry about that stain. You can Zap it out! Zap removes coffee, wine, cherries, even blood!”)

So yeah, choosing my battles I conceded to the crackdown, which meant I’m not just across the country, I’m on a veritable desert island. But I heard things. Such as Dana whispering that mantra to Lorenzo Fertitta, another high school friend: “I’m telling you, bro, this thing could be big . . .”

Only Lorenzo listened, and with his older brother, Frank, they purchased the ailing UFC and installed Dana as president in 2001. But that’s it. No clue how it was doing. Occasionally I received a Dana email exhorting me to visit, but I was slammed with life and work and just never found time to venture from the shore. That is, until the monstrous hand of God, in the form of Hurricane Katrina, swept through the Gulf of Mexico in 2005 and mangled the entire coast.

Cataclysm doesn’t even begin to describe such an event, not at your doorstep.

We interpreted the signs, packed our vintage Airstream, and drove away from the debris, touring the country and eventually winding our way back West. Once in Vegas, I surprised my old friend with a phone call. He picked me up in a black Range Rover. I rubbed his bald head and hugged him. “It’s been a long time, Gorilla,” he said.

“I can’t believe it,” I said. “Tell me everything.”

Now, nearing the black curtain at the mouth of the tunnel, the floor thumps with every step, but how it feels is like I just swallowed the red pill and that’s why I’ve got these cold sweats. Welcome to the real. One moment I’m on the plane with my bro, close my eyes, and now—

Security guards surround us. A hand drops on my shoulder and passes me a laminated badge, UFC 84: Penn vs. Sherk. I stare at the flimsy rectangle and try to tune out the screeching walkie-talkies.

“You cool?” Dana again asks.

I grip the badge like a talisman and smile back. “I’m cool.”

“Let’s go.” The drapes swing wide and we’re rushed into darkness, shoved into limbs, bodies, bodies everywhere. Security clears a rough path. We round a barricade and a spotlight ignites. The crowd erupts. Cameras flash and I’m feeling my way . . . finally the splotches clear, and oh shit, he’s gone. Swallowed whole. I’m knocked into a gate. Massive LCD monitors hang from the ceiling, and wait, there’s Dana floating overhead, that bald head bigger than I could ever imagine.

It’s too much. I let him go, knowing we’ll catch up at the press conference. Chuckling to myself, I remember us drinking beer and slam-dancing to punk music in his bedroom—and what I wonder, what I can’t fathom, is not how such a ridiculous idea inspired a whisper, but how a whisper grows so fucking deafening.

The facts. Trawling the web yields some neat-ish stats: MMA is the fastest-growing sport in the world (according to Simmons Research Database, gate attendance at UFC events from 2001 to 2008 increased more than 500 percent. Further, between 2005 and 2008, the fan bases of the NFL, NBA, MLB, MLS, and NASCAR each declined, while the UFC fan base increased more than 30 percent); UFC bouts typically draw 12,000 to 15,000 attendees and, according to third-party guestimates, upwards of 1.6 million PPV buys; The Ultimate Fighter reality TV series often attracts more than 1 million eyeballs; fights are broadcast in more than 145 countries and territories, and the UFC boasts 31 million fans in the United States and 65 million worldwide; hundreds of MMA companies, responsible for thousands of jobs, attend the UFC Fan expo twice a year; the UFC Undisputed 2009 video game sold more than 3.5 million copies upon its release; UFC Octagon girl Arianny Celeste has graced the pages of Playboy, Maxim, FHM, and The Atlantic; most major news outlets cover MMA, with staff journalists cranking out the who/what/when/ where/why of  every MMA murmur and happening—

But enough already, as this is neither a MMA encyclopedia nor a Dana White biography—there’s plenty enough compendiums and sites devoted to individual fighter stats, and as far as a bio, though I’ve injected plenty of D.W. anecdotes and history throughout this book, his bio is another project. So what you’re holding here is my attempt to chronicle, and I hope make sense of, the maelstrom that he, Lorenzo, and Frank unleashed on our post-millennium world.

Some nights, usually after a stiff glass, I hear that whisper. So I break out the album and sift through old photos. Fuck yeah, I find it strange. Then, now. There, here. And in those moments, what I want more than anything is to raise my drink and for real swallow the red pill, just to see how deep this rabbit hole goes.


Excerpted from Into the Cage by Nick Gullo. Copyright © 2013 by Into the Cage by Nick Gullo.
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 First Bird by Greig Beck – Extract

The First Bird

PROLOGUE

1932 – GRAN CHACO BOREAL, BRAZIL

Esubio slammed into a tree and crouched there, sucking in wet ragged breaths and hugging his prize. His head pounded and his skin itched, but still he grinned. Esubio Salamanca Urey had enlisted with the Bolivian army to fight against Paraguay in the war over their disputed border, but his real goals were vastly different. He needed transport to the most impenetrable and secretive jungle in the world. Legend had it there were riches there … and he had a map.

More missiles flew – the natives had found him, letting loose another flock of their four-foot long poison-tipped arrows. The only thing that blunted their aim was the tangled vines and creepers, so tightly woven in some areas that they formed a single knotted mass.

He clutched the idol to his chest and darted off again, zigzagging along an animal track that was little more than a parting of fern fronds, young trees and fungus. The ground squelched under his feet as he bullocked through the mad green hell. He stumbled again; the golden object was heavy, and slippery, but he would die before he released it.

Esubio sucked in more humid breaths, coughed wetly and spat. His head hammered, and his lips, ears and eyelids tingled strangely. He increased his pace, knowing that if he could make it to the river there was a good chance he could find his squad. Next time he’d come back with his own army of trusted friends … after all, he’d found enough gold to make a hundred men rich for a thousand lifetimes. Together, they’d clear these strange gorilla-people out. He’d bring dynamite to reopen the now-collapsed hole he had found in the mighty cliff walls, and then they could fill boxes with the stuff.

More arrows flew. He tripped as he tried to avoid the deadly projectiles, cursing at the natives’ aim, speed and ugliness. More like apes, he thought. Getting to his feet, Esubio wiped his face. His sleeve came away wet with blood. Had he cut himself? Probably. He staggered on, grimacing as a weird sensation came over him. The constant itch had changed to a mad crawling sensation, as if a million ants had taken up residence beneath his skin. He knew that in the Gran Chaco everything that could crawl, slither or fly wanted to suck your blood or feed on you – or in you – but this felt strange, like his entire skin was … shifting.

Esubio dove into the hollow of a tree and tried to calm his breathing, letting his gaze move over the thick jungle. He rested the golden idol on his leg. It was getting harder to hold as his hand became even more slippery – unnaturally so. He raised his arm to examine it.

Madre de Dios.” His lips pulled back in horror. The skin seemed to sag like an oversized glove. He touched it with his other hand, and his fingers went through the skin as though it was nothing more than tissue. Esubio’s eyes widened in terror. As he watched, more of the skin sloughed off his arm. He leaned forward in horror and clumps of hair, some still with scalp attached, came away from his head and plopped wetly into the mud.

Por favor Dios, por favor Dios.” He put a hand to his face and felt looseness. “No, no, no.” He got to his feet, letting the idol fall into the soaking earth, instantly forgotten. He looked again at his hands, praying the horrifying vision had just been a trick of the light, or a touch of jungle madness.

It hadn’t. Both hands were now were red and glistening. The outer layer of skin had entirely slid away, leaving muscle, tendon and bluish veins exposed to the air. Esubio wailed, and spun helplessly, just as a long arrow took him in the chest. He sank to his knees as the natives caught up and surrounded him. As his vision began to fade, he saw them halt suddenly, recoiling as if he was some sort of poisonous reptile.

Infectado, he thought, and could have laughed at fate’s mockery. He had hacked through miles of strength-sapping jungle, found the hidden place and crawled on his belly though a tiny rift in the cliff wall. He had seen things in that strange secret world that shouldn’t have existed and then found the mountains of lost gold. And now he was being brought down, not by the arrow, but by something so tiny as to be near invisible? Some ancient god’s joke, surely?

He wailed. This is not how it should end!

Another arrow pierced Esubio’s neck and he fell forward. The small golden idol sat upright in the mud, its leering face staring back at his disintegrating frame.

As his fading vision swam red and life left him, Esubio felt the gentle touch of the soft earth as the natives threw its dark dampness over his corrupted body.

Padre Celestial, por favor perdóname. With wet earth in his eyes and mouth, darkness and silence took him.

EPISODE 1: A WONDROUS DISCOVERY

CHAPTER 1

TODAY – GRAN CHACO BOREAL, BRAZIL

Pieter Jorghanson nodded and smiled, nodded and smiled. The small group of indigenous people he sat amongst were in the “lost tribe” category, found either by satellite photography or accidentally, during mining surveys.

This part of the jungle was unique and mysterious. Its informal moniker amongst academia was “the green boneyard”. For every ten scientists or enthusiastic professors who entered, only five returned, and of those who did, few had penetrated its dark heart.

The Gran Chaco Boreal, on the border of Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil, is one of the last truly unexplored places on earth. Modern man knows more about the moon and the fathomless dark ocean trenches than they do about the deep green lands in this jungle. Two hundred and fifty thousand square miles of cover, so thick that from the sky the tops of trees looked like lumpy green hills.

To add to its impenetrability, armies of poisonous reptiles, insects and sickness-bearing parasites, as well as thorn forests with spikes long and sharp enough to penetrate the toughest leather or canvas, surrounded its core. Hacking through this dense biological barrier was slow; it could take a day to progress little more than twenty feet. Luck, a local guide, or a helicopter drop were the only ways in.

Pieter nodded and smiled again. A small woman smiled broadly in return. Gho-ka had taken a shine to him, and seemed to assume responsibility for teaching him their ways. Her first husband had been killed in the jungle, and now, as was her right, she was free to choose another mate. Pieter wondered exactly what she had in mind for him.

He looked at her closely – receding chin, thick brow ridge, squat torso and heavily muscled arms and legs. Very primitive-looking, he thought, as she touched his arm lightly and then pulled back, giggling and covering her mouth full of shovel-like teeth.

Overall, the tribe was friendly but extremely secretive. Pieter found that his rudimentary inquiries about the jungle were mostly met with patience or good humor. Very few questions elicited a more vigorous or aggressive response.

The Ndege Watu, as they referred to themselves, were like brightly colored birds, with their orange ochre body paint and red and yellow feathers hanging from their hair and groins. It had taken him months to find them, and then several more weeks to get close enough to share a smile and avoid being pierced by one of their poison-tipped arrows. Eventually, after weeks of swapping food and gifts, he had finally been invited to join them.

As a scientist specializing in social anthropology, Jorghanson was a barely competent linguist, so although he had first thought the Ndege Watu’s dialect might be associated with the Panobo group of languages, he had soon found it more song-like, punctuated with glottal stops, before moving back to a high-pitched whistling. Jorghanson had only managed to pick up the odd word and inference here and there.

What excited him most was the strange and amazing script the Ndege used. It far surpassed the simple nature of their language. Raised glyphs, more like artwork than anything he had ever come across, adorned totems and the walls of their largest huts. He needed an expert appraisal, but already he was thinking the language was a root dialect merged with some sort of Amerindian influence. But the writing … he looked at his notes and penciled some sketches of their character sets – Incan influence with a hint of Oceania, and more – definitely logographic and certainly unique.

He shaded in the characters for what might have been the Incan images for valley, or walled place. Most of the early tribes that encountered the Incans or Mayans were absorbed, used as slaves, or exterminated. Somehow, these little guys had managed to survive as a distinct and unique tribal group. Either some quirk of fate had caused them to be left alone, or the major races had wanted it that way. The Ndege had been lucky … and now so was he, he thought, smiling and nodding to his new friends.

He felt he had more than enough information to have the tribe given do-not-approach status under the Funei collective of South American lost tribes. That alone would gain him scientific kudos.

Jorghanson nudged Gho-ka, eliciting significant mirth from the other squat brown women, little bigger than children, but with brightly painted sagging breasts on their barrel chests. She covered her mouth again, hiding the long canines, but he could see her smile. I guess flirting is universal, he thought as he watched her join in the cooking of meats and tubers.

He made some more notes and smacked his lips; the smell from the fires was making his mouth water. He craved more food but was too polite to ask for it, nor did he know how. Besides, he didn’t feel he deserved it as he had never attended a hunt. He would probably scare the game, anyway. The only time he had tried to indicate his desire to come with them, he had been forcefully rebuffed. It seemed some parts of the jungle were strictly off-limits.

Jorghanson was financing this trip with his own money. He could have sought funding from his university, but doing so would have meant that any discoveries would be jointly credited. Though not mercenary, he knew that a solid discovery meant recognition, significant future funding, publication, and perhaps even approaches for nature documentaries – hello, David Attenborough. That’d be more like it, he thought.

He looked again at the picture writing – would it be enough? He needed an angle, a hook … he needed there to be a link to the great Incans or Mayans, or at least a perceived link. Hmm. Keepers of the Incan secrets – nah. Last of the Mayans? No, too much like Last of the Mohicans. Hmm, ancient Incans found – wait: ancient Incans found by intrepid explorer! Not bad. He’d need to think on it, but it was definitely coming together.

Jorghanson coughed and slapped at his neck in a vain attempt to catch an annoying insect. Too late; he felt the lumpy itch of multiple bites already at his collar. He didn’t care, it was a small price to pay. This was going to pay off a lot quicker than sitting at a desk, or delivering yet another lecture to bored students who’d rather be doing something, anything, else.

His stomach rumbled again. Through much excited gesticulating and a great deal of guesswork on his part, he’d deduced that the evening’s dinner was to include an animal that was a delicacy of the tribe. He watched hungrily as a layer of clay was cut away, followed by the steaming leaves, and the creature was broken up into smaller pieces. Everything would be eaten, and nothing wasted.

The animal looked to be the size of a good turkey. Handfuls of meat, skin and bone were piled onto pieces of bark and handed along the lines, firstly to the tribal elders, then to the warriors. Eventually Gho-ka brought him a mound of blackened flesh and bone, and he tried to make the difficult glottal-guttural sounds for “thank you”.

The small woman just smiled and nodded, grabbing a piece of meat and pushing it into his mouth. Delicious! It could have been rat for all he cared. High-protein food was hard to come by. Besides, the food wasn’t always cooked, and some things in the jungle, when eaten raw, were hard for a middle-aged westerner to keep down, no matter how adventurous he thought he was.

He coughed again as he savored another small piece of warm meat. Strange, he’d assumed it was a bird, but it didn’t really taste like one at all. He’d tried alligator, snake and even goanna in Australia. Like this, they were a solid type of meat, more like white beef than soft poultry. He’d love to know what he was eating.

He turned to the male next to him, pointed to his food, and made the sound for “good”, following it with the opening hand gesture that indicated a question. He raised his eyebrows and shrugged, hopefully indicating curiosity about what he was eating.

Jorghanson concentrated as a torrent of impenetrable words and sounds tumbled toward him. The small man pointed to the jungle and made flapping motions with his arms. Okay, a bird from the jungle. Jorghanson nodded and raised his eyebrows. The man snapped his jaws together, pointing at his own teeth. Yes, we’re eating it, got that too.

The man shrugged and went back to his food, and the scientist frowned, none the wiser. It had been months, and he still only understood a fraction of their language. He was a better karaoke singer than he was a linguist.

He picked up a chunk of meat attached to a flat piece of bone about three inches long, nibbled the clinging flesh off and then examined the shard. Odd. It was solid, not the lighter, hollow bone he expected from a bird. He picked up another piece, also flat, and fitted them together – it was the side of a skull, containing some upper jaw, and … teeth. Teeth? He held the fragment close to his face, then rummaged for his glasses to examine it more closely.

I’ll be damned, he thought – acrodont teeth on a bird. He swung to Gho-ka next to him and uttered a string of glottal stops and short vocalic sets, hoping upon hope that for once in his life he had got the translation right. Where?

The woman at first shook her head, her eyes going wide, but after some stroking and smiling, she smiled shyly in return. Pieter knew she’d tell him. He also knew he had just found his angle.


Excerpted from The First Bird by Greig Beck. Copyright © 2013 by Greig Beck.
First published 2013 in Momentum. 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.

Infidelity by Hugh Mackay – Extract

Infidelity

London. 22 January

Some moments remain locked in the memory, vividly and forever; they are often beginnings or endings. My first encounter with Sarah Delacour was one of those.

‘I understand you are an Australian,’ she said, with a playful smile.

‘I am indeed,’ I replied, ‘but how could you possibly have known that? Except now, of course, that I’ve opened my mouth.’

‘Oh, you don’t sound especially Australian. I can do a better Australian accent than yours – rather cruel, but recognisable.’

I remember noticing – no, it was stronger than noticing; I was smitten by her luminous green eyes and skin of palest peach.

I raised my eyebrows. ‘So how –’

‘How did I know? Neither clever nor mysterious. Kitty said there was an Australian upstairs who had started coming here regularly. She described you accurately.’

‘Kitty?’

‘The woman on the front desk. I bring my mother here every Thursday – she’s an Australian too – Kitty is always looking for links like that.’ She leant over the woman in the wheelchair parked in front of us and raised her voice. ‘Mother, this is the man from Australia.’

This was my third visit to the Royal Academy, drawn as much by the place as the collection. Lost in wonder at a room full of portraits by some of the biggest names in English art, I had become conscious of a woman staring at me across an adjoining room. My immediate impression was of grace, poise and confidence. She wore a perfectly tailored dark green suit and a string of pearls at her throat. Unable to shake my habit of trying to construct a persona from an impression, I thought she might be a wellheeled lawyer, or perhaps a merchant banker, though the auburn hair falling loose about her shoulders didn’t quite fit. As our eyes met, her gaze turned into a radiant smile – a direct and deliberate smile, not the vague acknowledgement that sometimes passes between strangers in museums and galleries. I smiled back, as if this were the most natural thing in the world, to be smiling warmly at a stranger.

She was standing with her hands resting on a wheelchair in which an older woman was seated, studying a catalogue. I looked away briefly, dragging my eyes back to the painting I had been studying. After a moment, I realised she was still watching me, still smiling straight at me.

I don’t believe in love at first sight, by the way. Arousal of primitive urges, yes; the piquing of interest, yes; responsiveness to encouraging signs, yes. Whichever of these possibilities was propelling me, I needed to speak to this smiling, open-faced woman; to know who might be flashing such a clear – brazen? – signal in my direction. She moved towards me; I moved towards her; we met in front of a bronze bust.

She looked as if she could be in her mid-forties – roughly my age – and she was almost my height in her heels. Below those green eyes, she had a fine, straight nose and full lips. One of her front teeth was pleasingly askew.

Having established that I was indeed the Australian described by Kitty, she extended her hand. ‘I’m sorry. I’m Sarah Delacour and this is my mother, Elizabeth Delacour.’

I took Sarah’s hand and she squeezed mine lightly, still looking into my eyes as if no one had ever taught her the courtesy of breaking your gaze.

‘Hello, Sarah. My name’s Tom. Tom Harper. Pleased to meet you, Mrs Delacour.’

Her mother smiled up at me. I could see it was an effort for her to turn her head and I crouched down in front of the wheelchair so my face was at the same level as hers.

‘Call me Elizabeth, please. All Australian girls of my generation were called Elizabeth or Margaret, after the princesses. Except the Catholics, of course. They were Kathleen or Monica. No one was called Charlene. Or Kylie. I’m talking about the thirties. What was your mother’s name, may I ask?’

‘Margaret.’

‘There you are.’

‘So where did you . . .?’

‘Sydney originally. But that was a long, long time ago, of course. I’ve spent my adult life here. Sarah is as English as the Queen.’

‘Who is, of course, more Euro-Royal than English and presides over a family even more dysfunctional than mine,’ Sarah said, dropping her voice. ‘Mother grew up on Sydney’s North Shore. Plucked from  suburban  obscurity  by  an  English  gentleman – not – and whisked off to his oh-so-charming and oh-so-draughty cottage in the Garden of England. I’m the product of that somewhat transient union with the infamous Rat of Kent.’

‘Speak up, Sarah,’ Mrs Delacour said rather testily. ‘I can’t hear you properly. I assume you’re defaming my ex-husband again.’ As an aside for my benefit, she added: ‘I am slightly deaf in one ear. I’m not confined to this wheelchair, by the way – I have some arthritis in my knees and I simply make sensible use of a wheelchair on occasions like this. Better than hobbling.’

Sarah ignored this, except to raise her voice. ‘I’m just telling Tom about your whirlwind romance.’ Then, to me: ‘They met in the queue for the Big Dipper at Luna Park. How romantic is that?’

Elizabeth rolled her eyes at me, without smiling. ‘I was myself well past the Big Dipper stage, I can assure you. I was merely giving my ten-year-old niece an outing.’

‘Which makes you wonder what a forty-five-year-old Englishman was doing, all by himself, at Luna Park.’ Sarah’s eyes positively twinkled as she said this.

‘Being a tourist,’ Elizabeth shot back. ‘What else? As you see, Tom, Sarah is brimful of English reserve. I’m sure you don’t need to hear any of this.’

Undeterred, Sarah smiled at me again. Light seemed to emanate from that smile, like a laser aimed at my heart. ‘I was about to ask Tom where he came from.’

‘Oh, I’m from Sydney, too. Also from the North Shore, of course – where else? Meet a total stranger in a gallery on the other side of the world and she’s bound to hail from just up the road. I live in Castlecrag, actually, which is Middle Harbour rather than North Shore, I suppose.’

‘Quite so. And designed by Burley Griffin, as I recall.’ Mrs Delacour sounded dismissive. ‘Almost as many circular roads as Canberra. What did that man have against straight lines and right angles?’

I was grateful for these geographical banalities. Rising from my crouch beside the wheelchair, I looked at Sarah, fully taking her in. She was not merely beautiful – she glowed with beauty. Her voice was like velvet. And she had a very engaging mother.

‘May I buy you afternoon tea?’ I heard myself saying, without having decided to say it. ‘You probably already know it’s very good here.’

‘Thank you. Not today, though. We’ve just had a rather late lunch and I must get Mother back. If you happened to be here next Thursday, perhaps you could join us for coffee after our lunch. Shall we say two?’

‘I’d be delighted. It’s been a pleasure to meet you both.’

‘Here’s my card.’ Sarah extracted a card from her purse and handed it to me with what looked like an ironic little bow.

We shook hands again and I helped Sarah into a black coat she had slung over the back of the wheelchair. I walked beside her as she piloted her mother through a series of rooms and into the lift lobby. As she pressed the call button, she turned to face me, unsmiling now but with widened eyes. The lift arrived, and they were gone.

I read the card: Sarah Delacour, Senior Lecturer, English Language & Literature, King’s College London. Neither lawyer nor merchant banker. My impression of superb taste, let’s face it, carried connotations of wealth. Sarah looked expensively dressed; even her perfume needed money to create that kind of subtle waft. Not the kind of money a senior lecturer would normally earn. A wealthy family? (Not to judge by her mother’s rather plain cardigan and woollen trousers, or the scathing reference to the Rat of Kent.) A rich husband? (Surely not, I thought, perhaps attaching too much significance  to  our  flirtatious  little  dance  of  the  eyes: nothing impairs judgement like hope.) A successful author? (Perhaps she’s only Sarah Delacour at work; perhaps she writes erotic thrillers under a pseudonym. That could be fun, I allowed myself to think.) A simpler explanation – no dependants and enough income to indulge her taste – was too boringly plausible.

Buoyed by fantasies rich with Sarah-inspired possibilities, I returned to the portraits that had previously so engaged me, but found I’d lost interest.

*****

Six weeks into a self-imposed exile, I was savouring the freedom from everything I had left behind in Sydney – not just the immediate crisis that had propelled my departure, but all those years spent hiding, without realising I was doing it. Now, ten thousand miles from home, I was adjusting to being out in the open.

My hiding place, my cocoon, had been the persona of a helpful, caring person. Helpful. What an effective protection from real engagement that was – from my friends, even from my clients, and certainly from the women I tried to love. Who was ever going to criticise helpful? My work as a clinical psychologist provided daily reinforcement of my armour. I felt the power of the interpreter surging through me; the delusional superiority of the professional class: we have the secret codes; we understand.

I was not naive enough to think I could shed the chrysalis of my former life in the space of a few weeks, but the process had definitely begun. I found myself sitting in cafes and watching the crowd, but no longer as an observer or an analyst. I felt cheerfully one of them; part of them. Relieved of the need for answers, I browsed in galleries, libraries, museums, churches, shops . . . open to anything, happy to respond directly to whatever – whomever – I encountered. Nothing was expected of me, even by me. It was a marvellous liberation. I was no longer burdened by the sense that I was there to help; to explain; to interpret. I was just there.

It was a dark, damp afternoon as I left the Royal Academy. I was not missing the sweltering heat of a Sydney summer one bit. Having been the recent focus of far too much attention, being anonymous was also a relief. After my previous visits to the Academy, I had crossed Piccadilly, hunched under my umbrella, feeling perfectly attuned to the muted light and muffled sounds of that wintry city. Now, the prospect of another meeting with the intriguing Sarah had shifted my perception and altered my mood. For the first time since I had arrived there, London felt exciting.


Excerpted from Infidelity by Hugh Mackay. Copyright © 2013 by Hugh Mackay.
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.

A Naked Singularity by Sergio de la Pava – Extract

A Naked Singularity

Why should there not be a patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people?
– epigraph above entrance to Criminal Court.

Chapter 1

– noise background,

My getting out or what?!

Eleven hours and Thirty-Three minutes since meridian said the clock perched high atop a ledge on the wall and positioned to look down on us all meaning we were well into hour seven of this particular battle between Good and Evil and, oh yeah, that was Good taking a terrific beating with the poultry-shaped ref looking intently at its eyes and asking if it wanted to continue. We were what passed for Good there: the three of us and anyone we stood beside when we rose to speak for the mute in that decaying room (100 Centre Street’s AR-3); and in that place, at that moment, Evil had us surrounded.

The puppet-master pulling strings from behind the bench was a bloated pink one on loan from the Bronx. The nameplate directly before him announced J. MANOS in calligraphic gold. Its owner and referent had decided no-one would taste freedom that arctic night and had been slowly apprising us of that decision for the aforementioned seven-plus hours. And all that while he fostered this ugly habit of echoing the end of his sentences, but only after the kind of delay that fooled you into thinking you were in the clear, as in bail is set in the amount of ten thousand dollars . . . ten thousand dollars and often all emphatic(!) too.

The DA was essentially bony but with a slightly bulbous face beneath a mushroom hairdo that rose and expanded from dark root stem to bottle-blond cap. She displayed no discernible personality or affect as she uttered (through an inconsistent lip-distorting-yet-thankfully-dry-lisp) the customary declarations of mock moral outrage like this defendant hath warranted on every one of his twenty three cathes, this defendant itha four-time predicate felon and this defendant hath used twelve different aliathes. Unsurprisingly, these words – when spoken in those or similar combinations and to that audience – were more than sufficiently persuasive and as such invariably caused high numbers with commas to emerge from behind the nameplate. The numbers then attached to a body, one that by then had traversed the entirety of a creaking assembly line, and as a result the body stayed in.

[bod-y (b d ) n., pl. ies. 9. CJS. Inarguably odious term used by N.Y.C. Department of Correction and other court personnel to denote incarcerated criminal defendants: There are three hundred bodies in the system so we should be busy. He’s bringing the next batch of bodies down now, I’ll let you know if your guy’s one of them.]

And this was before anything even remotely insane had happened when I still occasionally thought about things like how it was that people were reduced to bodies, meaning the process. How you needed cops to do it and how their master, The System, needed to be constantly fed former people in order to properly function so that in a year typical to the city where the following took place about half a million bodies were forcibly conscripted. And if you learn only one thing from the ensuing maybe let it be this: the police were not merely interested observers who occasionally witnessed criminality and were then basically compelled to make an arrest, rather the police had the special ability to in effect create Crime by making an arrest almost whenever they wished, so widespread was wrongdoing. Consequently, the decision on who would become a body was often affected by overlooked factors like the candidate’s degree of humility, the neighborhood it lived in, and most often the relevant officers’ need for overtime.

None of which tells you the exact process by which someone, let’s say You, becomes a body, which account I sort of impliedly semi-promised, so imagine you are on the street, then in an incident, then a stranger’s hand is on your melon making sure it doesn’t bang the half-blue/halfwhite American-only car with the colorful bar across the top. Imagine that, easy if you try. Now the police have twenty-four hours to get you in front of a judge for your criminal court arraignment but if you’re the perceptive sort you will monitor Time’s ceaseless consumption of this period yet rightly detect no corresponding increase in ambient urgency.

Your first stop is the appropriate precinct where the arresting officer or A/O stands you before another cop known as the Desk Sergeant. He tells him the tale of your alleged sin and the two, speaker and audience, join their heads to decide what section(s) of the New York Penal Law to charge you with. Now you’ve been informally charged and with that out of the way you may be asked to remove all your clothes (the propriety of this being debated at the time) and kindly spread open your ass. This strip search is one of several ways that additional charges can still arise so while you may have been arrested for a triviality like displaying an open bottle of Heineken to the public – a prosecution normally conducted in a decidedly minor key and resolved right at arraignments – your glove-clad searcher may now discover what you most sought to conceal, that you are currently holding one of the area’s surfeit of readily available-yet-technically illicit anesthetics in amounts ranging anywhere from the ghostly residue of celebrations past to multiple powder bricks and in locations as presumably inviolable as within your underwear or even up your ass or maybe you possess one of the other less popular forms of the all-inclusive law enforcement term contraband. In that way can minor breaches be converted into major faults and this happens often, not occasionally. The police know this and are therefore unlikely to ignore even nonsense like the above Consumption of Alcohol in a Public Place (AC §10.125). People like you know this as well yet permit it to alter their conduct not in the slightest, ensuring in the process that the number of bodies will always remain fairly constant.

Another way you have to be careful not to pick up more charges is by resisting capture, even if only verbally, because such conduct can incite some of your lesser blue pacifists into a bit of retributory violence, with said violence then necessitating that you be charged with Resisting Arrest (PL §205.30) if only by way of explaining your injuries; which injuries better be minor lest they result in the added felony charge of Assault in the Second Degree (PL §120.05[3]), a more extensive explanation whereby a misdemeanor assault becomes a felony one by virtue of involving a police officer.

Still at the precinct, you are printed, each of your fingers rolled in black ink then onto vestal white paper. The resulting bar code is sent to Albany for the purpose of producing a rap sheet, an accordiony collection of onion paper that means everything where you are. It means everything because sentencing like Physics and other sciences builds on what came before so that the worse your past was, the worse your present will be, and no sane person doubts the rap sheet’s depiction of the past since it’s based on unalterable fingerprints and not relative ephemera like names or social security numbers. I say no sane person because when once confronted by an individual who steadfastly claimed not to recall in the slightest what I deemed to be a highly memorable conviction on his sheet and one that substantially increased his exposure, I asked him if he planned to launch a Lockean defense whereby he could not be held responsible for something he didn’t remember as such act was not properly attributable to his personal identity at which point he gave me the blankest of stares in response then started saying increasingly odd things in rapid succession until I realized that he not only sort of knew what I was talking about, which was weird enough, but that he was undeniably insane and my ill-advised Locke reference was like the thing coming after the final straw to tip him over the Axis-II-Cluster-A edge, as it were, so that I thenceforth stopped doing things like that.

Now there’s all this paperwork the A/O has to fill out and he’ll stick you in the precinct’s cell while he fills. But first, if the case has any seriousness whatsoever, he and his friends want to accumulate evidence against you and since the best evidence is quite often the very words you emit, they mostly want you to make a statement, and trust me when I tell you that by the time they’re through with you you’ll probably want you to make a statement as well. Because while the police operated under something called the forty-eight hour rule which stated that an officer charged with any kind of official misconduct cannot be questioned about it for forty-eight hours – giving him time to, among other things, retain a criminal defense attorney – you are currently operating under a different forty-eight hour rule. This one says the police can harass, intimidate, lie, cheat, steal, cajole, make false promises, and delay your arraignment (where you would be assigned an attorney who would most assuredly not allow you to speak to the police) for forty-eight hours if that’s what it takes to extract your statement. And it is following all that, not at the very instant you’re arrested as mass entertainment would have you believe, that they will advise you of your Miranda rights so your ensuing statement will be admissible.

And this is as good a time as any for you, gentle reader, to learn that I can wander a bit while storytelling so that the very imminent digressive passage on the judicial creation of Miranda warnings can be entirely skipped by the uncurious without the slightest loss of narrative steam.

Digression begins. So Ernesto Miranda is the Miranda of the warnings and the same year a famous shooter(s) would later scatter John Fitzgerald all over Jackie he was twenty-three and creating smaller-scale mayhem. A high school dropout with the mental development of an eighth-grader, Miranda had already served one year on an attempted rape conviction. In a perpendicular universe, an eighteen-year-old Phoenix girl who I’m going to say strove to dress like the glossy girls she saw in magazines and to listen to the same records as her more desirable classmates indisputably acted as attendant to some movie theater’s candy counter, the true home of such an operation’s profits incidentally. She sold synthetic butter and liquid Real Things and when done tried to go home. Enter Miranda who interrupted her trip home. He grabbed her, dragged her into his car, and drove her out into the Red, Brown, and Purple of the Painted Desert where he raped her.

Fast forward one week when the girl briefly saw what she thought was the car driven by her assailant, a 1953 Packard. She reported this belief to the police, telling them the license plate of the car was DFL312. That plate turned out to be registered to an Oldsmobile but the police discovered that DFL317 was registered to a Packard – a Packard owned by Twila N. Hoffman, Ernesto Miranda’s girlfriend. Off to 2525 West Mariposa (Oeste Butterfly) Street where Miranda was found to fit the description given by the girl. He was arrested and placed in a line-up. The girl said he most resembled the rapist but failed to make an unequivocally positive identification.

Detectives took Miranda into Interrogation Room Two where he was told he had been identified as the rapist and asked if he wanted to make a statement. He did, a signed written confession that took two hours to elicit following his initial denial of guilt and that included a section saying he understood his rights. Miranda was charged and assigned an attorney. The attorney, Alvin Moore, had plenty on his neck, however, and for a well-spent $100 he objected that the confession had been illegally obtained because no-one told Ernesto, prior to his statement, that he had the right to an attorney. The trial judge said no way to that and after the jury consequently heard the confession, and was surely impressed by it, he got to prescribe twenty to thirty years in special housing as a remedy. Ernesto wondered if he could appeal and he could.

The ACLU grabbed the case and 976 days later they were in front of the court that never gets overruled with John Flynn saying, and this is a direct quote (no it isn’t): “look dudes, and I refer to you thusly because this is way pre-O’Connor/Ginsberg, your Fifth Amendment deal is only protecting the rich and powerful: those who are brainy enough to know what their rights are or who have the dough to rent a lawyer.” The Warren Supremes actually agreed and, in the kind of decision that makes maybe five people happy, held that before future police could torment some illiterate sap who nobody cares about into confessing his sins, real or imagined, they would have to inform him of certain rights not covered in your average eighth-grade Social Studies class. As is customary in these all-too-rare instances, Miranda’s conviction was reversed and his case set down for retrial – a trial to be conducted without his now tainted confession, without any physical evidence of a struggle, and with a dubious identification. In a stroke of all-too-common prosecutorial serendipity, however, Miranda’s common-law wife, the previously mentioned Twila, emerged to testify that Miranda had admitted the rape to her. The fact that she and Miranda were then involved in a bitter custody dispute – are these ever otherwise described? – was conveniently ignored and the new jury said something to the effect of where are your Supremes now because we agree with the first jury. Miranda was eventually paroled then, the same year his country celebrated its two-hundredth birthday party, stabbed and killed in a Phoenix bar fight. As the police arrested one of his assailants they took care to read him his Miranda rights in English and Spanish. Digression ends.

*

Of course so famous have these warnings become that it seems they’re no longer really heard in any meaningful way so that although someone with a gun is pointedly telling you you have the right to remain silent, that is, you have the right to make their job harder, to make it more difficult for them to accumulate evidence and later proof against you, the right to decrease the chances that you will end in jail, you will still almost invariably decline to exercise that right. Instead when someone like me later asks you if you spoke you’ll affirm then say things like: he said I would get out if I made a statement or they knew I wasn’t the shooter so he said I would get a misdemeanor if I told them about the robbery or maybe I had to tell my side of the story or my mother said to tell them what happened or else I told them what happened but I didn’t write it so it’s not a statement right? or even they said once I got a lawyer there was nothing they could do for me and other similar, painful nonsense. You tell me these things and my chin drops because I’m not interested in what’s good for your soul only what’s good or bad for my case and your statement is bad for it.

And in what is possibly another mini-digression, here is, more specifically, why your statement is always bad or at least your classic no-win deal, regardless of its content: Realize that if what you said was good for you, you can reliably expect that it will never be repeated because the prosecution needn’t present it at trial or even tell anyone about it. On the other far more likely hand where what you said damages your prospects, then you likely just reduced me to arguing that the cop misinterpreted or improperly influenced the content or, worse, just made it up out of whole cloth. Only I’m arguing this in Manhattan not the Bronx or Brooklyn meaning a substantial portion of the listening jury has graduate degrees and nannies and they don’t think Police Officers do things like that and aren’t about to be disabused of that notion by a criminal like you. So thanks. All by way of saying that statements are good evidence for the prosecution so the cops know to get them and thus do, with occasional help from an assistant district attorney sitting in front of a bargain videocam if the case is serious enough.

Back to that paperwork the A/O’s filling out with you in a nearby cell. He’s scribbling and hunting and pecking while asking you the occasional question (these are mostly pedigree questions like name, address, etc., which everyone in a robe agrees don’t require preceding Miranda warnings) and you may not know it but your future’s in them pages, those police reports. Because those reports are Rosario material and as such must be turned over to your attorney at some point, usually seconds, before trial. And even at that late stage believe me that these reports are usually his only true friends within the cruel, lonely world he operates in. Friends because in all their babblative beauty they make claims early and often that the cop now has to mirror perfectly or else gift him the inconsistency so that if it suits you he will stand there at trial and wave them at the cop like holier verity was never written boy. And the Rosario List that comes with the material will look substantially like this (well, without the explanatory parentheticals):

  1. Online Booking Sheet: (mostly pedigree info but also details your capture including specific time and place).
  2. UF61 or Complaint Report: (principally useful for the narrative of events it includes as relayed by the cop and/or those pesky civilian eyewitnesses).
  3. Sprint Report: (transcription, in scarcely legible form, of all communications made via 911 operators and police radios including the infamous one-under that signals your descent into The System).
  4. Memo Book Entries: (every uniformed cop has to record in a little pad everything of note that happens during his shift).
  5. Aided Card: (only if someone was hurt requiring medical attention).
  6. Vouchers, Property Clerk Invoices, Invoice Worksheets: (about any property recovered and most importantly by whom and from where).

Only longer.

Now the paperwork’s complete and you’re on the move because the A/O is taking you to Central Booking. Central Booking is located at One Police Plaza and is the first of three post-precinct levels you must inhabit before meeting an attorney who will guide you through the final formal steps by which those who stay in are separated from those who get out. (Speaking only figuratively, these levels are concentrically circular and either expand while ascending or constrict while descending, depending on your vantage point). On this first level, you are handed off to cops previously, and likely disciplinarily, extracted from the street to work desks. They take charge of you while the A/O leaves to meet with one of the assistant district attorneys working in the Early Case Assessment Bureau, or ECAB, or Complaint Room, of the District Attorney’s Office. Here, the newly assigned DA, after interviewing the A/O, writes the criminal court complaint that formally charges you with a specific crime(s) and which includes a short narrative of the incident written in law-enforcementese and signed by the swearing cop. Note that this is why I earlier called precinct charges something like informal even though nobody else calls them that, my justification being that these arrest charges don’t really amount to much in the final analysis since this DA is actually the one who decides what crime to charge you with or whether to even charge you at all. Consequently, it’s the most common thing in the world to see charges that were inflated and overly optimistic, from the officers’ standpoint, reduced to something far more realistic by the party actually being asked to prove the damn thing, making these arrest charges something more along the lines of a recommendation really. Anyway, the DA additionally fills out a DA Data Sheet that also becomes Rosario and that includes more facts about the case and what his colleague’s bail request should be at the upcoming arraignment.

Back at Central Booking, your rap sheet returns from Albany and the cops check it to see if there are any outstanding bench warrants, arrest orders judges issue whenever a defendant stands them up at a court date. Now you can graduate to the next level located across the street in the building where this entire mess will come to fruition. This intermediate level is buried beneath your ultimate pre-arraignment destination and is colored to make you feel you’re inside a lime. Here, you sit in a cell and wait to meet a representative of the Criminal Justice Agency who wants to interview you to produce a CJA Sheet. This sheet informs the judge of the extent of your community ties and thus presumably the likelihood of your return to court, a critical factor allegedly used by the judge in determining whether or not to set bail on your case and if so how much.

What you’re rooting for here is a CJA verdict of RECOMMENDED VERIFIED TIES although that doesn’t exactly guarantee you anything either.

When this and other delays have been exhausted you’re ready for the pens directly behind the arraignment courtroom. To get there you’re walked down a perfectly symmetric hall that overhead, every eight or so paces, has metronomically intermittent, dimpled-plastic rectangles containing two tubes each of flickering light that end well before the dark base of the stairs. At the top of those stairs is a short hallway that leads to those two identical but transposed cells where you are told to wait until a lawyer like me calls you ad nominem into one of the six interview booths.

And on bad nights like that night with Manos you will scarcely have room to move as a great many other bodies wait there with you, the cell walls straining against the immured humanity; the number of bodies held therein so great you would not think so many could simultaneously do wrong. A teeming multitude with its components angling desperately for their just portion of the surrounding air and now you’re ready to declare Hobbes victorious over Rousseau with scant need for further deliberation. Because people sleep face-down on the sticky floor, the ones who aren’t too pained from active withdrawal, and you’re handed a small carton of milk with an unsealed plastic bag of white bread squeezing baloney and cheese to bleed solar-yellow mustard while you smell those alien body parts you least wanted to smell, watch dirty hands tremble to hold bloody scabs, feel beset by voices indistinctly grouped in throng and in the corner, as if on display, is an uncovered toilet next to a payphone available to any member of that preterite crowd capable of inserting a quarter and willing to make a phone call while watching someone take, or more accurately give, a shit. But worst is that every time a body goes out to see the judge it comes right back in shaking its head and it doesn’t take much to deduce that you will soon be doing the same. That’s where you are, where You ended up.

Where I was, by contrast, was fifteen yards away staring at an empty basket and praying it wouldn’t fill with more yellow (felonies) and blue (misdemeanors) papers describing additional bodies I would meet under duress so they could lie to me. But it did fill and the filling compelled me to action. And I’m going to start start here because I met Dane for the first time that night; that meeting and consequently the many subsequent ones a pure product of arraignment-schedule chance. We stared at the basket then each other and I realized that to that point he had said maybe five extra-judicial words. Consistent with that he absently grabbed an unfairly large share of the cases and went off to interview them without a sound.

Linda was a battle-scarred veteran of double digit years who had mastered the expected art form of appearing to be quite busy while doing little of value and was therefore nowhere near the basket. I took what remained, mostly yellow some blue, and went to the back to do the interviews. I planned to do them with extreme velocity too because I had done about a quillion already and wanted desperately to get the hell out of there. The first case I looked at was Darril Thorton, a yellow-back charged with Sex Abuse in the First Degree (PL §130.65). I called his name softly, hoping he wouldn’t answer, but he immediately moved in, a let’s-get-this-over-with look on his face. He spoke first, obviously yelling but still creating only a barely audible signal:– noise background,

My getting out or what?!


Excerpted from A Naked Singularity by Sergio de la Pava. Copyright © 2008 by Sergio de la Pava.
First published by the author in a limited edition in 2008, and by University of Chicago Press in 2012. First published in Great Britain in 2013 by MacLehose Press, an imprint of Quercus, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW.
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 Trader of Saigon by Lucy Cruickshanks – Extract

The Trader of Saigon

ONE

All that was left of the little lizard was a skeleton. It was trapped behind the browning tape which held the tattered mosquito net across the window. Tail curled, body strained and snaking, it looked like it had struggled to the very end. Alexander and the lizard sat together in the dusty café in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, watching people and sharing time. Alexander was stony-faced. Dead teeth bared, the lizard smiled.

Alexander knocked back the dregs of his watery coffee and lit a cigarette. He took a hard drag and ran his finger around the rim of his cup, listening to the stern, tin voice of the loudspeakers crackle in the heat as the Party marched through their evening bulletin. The street was insufferably busy, as were all in Hanoi. The buildings here squatted closer than in any other city he’d seen, and the trees they hid behind were all taller and thicker. His eyes sifted through the mess of brown faces and patrolling government uniforms and snagged on an elderly woman, crouched in a doorway on the opposite kerb. She was bending her head to the bowl in her hand and shovelling rice into her mouth through the gaps where her teeth should have been. A cat paced beside her, rubbing his mangy fur on her shin and flicking the stump of his tail, impatiently. The woman dropped a scrap and the animal chomped frantically at the ground. She paused and watched him, her tongue licking out from the corner of her mouth and her chopsticks upright in the bowl, like incense at a funerary rite. God, no, not her, thought Alexander. The lizard smiled.

Dusk was starting to creep in, but the air still boiled. In the searing heat, the sewers sweated, and hot, wet air rose up from underground and soaked the people with stench. All along the tree-lined street, shops and eateries spilled over from their doorways. Women sat on the tiled steps, fanning their children with the latest order of government pamphlets. Faded red flags hung from every awning, and they drooped as though weary of the heat too, and the strain of parading their loyalty. A food hawker wiped shimmering grease from her cheekbones and scraped her ladle around the rim of her broth bowl, calling out to those on the pavement. The thin, breathless whistle of bicycle spokes rang out as a stream of riders slipped ceaselessly by.

Inside the café, the electric lights were a stuttering blue buzz. They gave Alexander a headache. He pulled his glasses from his nose and placed them on the table, rubbing his eyes. When he had lost his glasses in his first weeks of war it had taken him years to replace them. He preferred not to see the faces of the men and boys who stalked him, charged him and lay dead in his way. Sometimes, he still preferred to keep his world blurred. All women looked more beautiful, softly unfocused.

It was right at the end of the war when he finally bought new ones. They had thick plastic rims that rested on the bridge of his nose, and the initials of a former owner were scratched into the corner of one lens in tiny, pointed letters. He had been in Saigon – a thousand miles south of where he sat now – and had bought them from a Frenchman in a reeking back alley. A lucky find, they were the only pair in a suitcase that bulged with knock-off watches and Zippo lighters, dented, tarnishing and engraved with the names of the bloodiest battleground cities. They cost him four dollars and a can of Heineken he had stolen from a drunken marine. He got them home just in time to watch the city fall through the slats of his shutters. He had stood with his face pressed against the dark wood and squinted out, and the low, loud moan of helicopters thumped through his chest. It swallowed the shouts of the looters on the ground, and they mouthed noiselessly at each other as they smashed, pushed and stole their way through the chaotic streets. The Americans were finally leaving, and this was what his victory looked like. Hidden in his room that day, Alexander had shared in the hysterical thrill of freedom.

When he looked back, he was still surprised at how easy it had been to desert the US Army. He had expected to be hunted, but he supposed the generals had bigger things to worry about. He was surprised too, at how simple it was to be a stray American, even after the war had ended. He practised his Russian, he lied and he hid, and he slithered through the shadows, untroubled. He supposed the Communists had bigger things to worry about too.

Alexander took another big pull on his cigarette as a soldier sidled by the café and stared brazenly in. Nothing itched him more these days, though, than time in Hanoi. Like nowhere else in Vietnam, the people here were cynical. The Party’s grip was tight and ingrained, and it bred a sense of urgent devotion. Mistrust had grown competitive; a game to be played between fearful men who would shop a comrade quick, lest it be them otherwise. He much preferred the rebellious South. There were far more men for the Party to watch there. He hid better amongst their disloyalty.

He waited for the soldier to pass and then peered back out, across the street. On the corner, a group of women had gathered. They were chattering noisily beneath a simpering portrait of Ho Chi Minh, swapping gossip and rice for gossip and fruit. No, thought Alexander, not them. His eye-line inched along the pavement, and red-and-yellow government banners blazed angrily between the trees. The Office of Justice and Criminal Punishment. The Central Committee of the Vietnam Fatherland Front. The Office of Conscription and Relations with Foreign Aggressors. He ticked off each escape in his head. A mother sat on the pavement and scolded her daughter, yanking a comb through the child’s hair. The girl scowled as her mother snatched a parting along her scalp and twisted her hair roughly up, pinning a knot on the side of her head. No, thought Alexander, not them. He always chose with great care. He was good at choosing. It had brought him success, selling dreams to simple Vietnamese women, and selling simple Vietnamese women to rich, expectant men. He went for the ones with the saddest eyes, but who looked like they had potential. An artisan, he blew hot air into thin glass girls and shaped them into ornaments of humming birds and orchids, so they sparkled in the sunlight at market.

The gathering of women quietened, collected their fruit and fastened the ribbons of their nón lá hats with scrawny fingers, their faces disappearing into shadow beneath the broad rims of the conical straw. As they moved away, Alexander saw another girl. She was sitting at the entrance of a passageway, with a blue-and-white-tiled 28 above the arch. Her hands were resting neatly on her knees and her head was down. There was a door hanging open in the gloom behind her – just a crack. An official approached and she wriggled awkwardly in her seat, leaning away from him. He spoke and tossed a coin in her lap before striding into the passageway and throwing open the door.

Alexander caught a glimpse of a squat toilet before the door swung shut again. He watched as the girl frowned, glancing anxiously into the passageway behind her and clearly waiting for the man to leave. Her shoulders were hunched and she clasped her hands together, folding them over each other and playing with something he couldn’t quite see. A ring? He strained his eyes and watched her tug and twist a band of sickly grey metal around her finger.

He dragged his chair closer to the table and leaned forward, to get a better look. Each time a man approached the squat, the girl shifted in her seat. Her hands jumped from where they had laid on her knees and curled into quick, tight fists in her lap, hiding her ring from the men who paid her. Alexander knew a squat-girl would not own anything of real value; it was her behaviour that nudged at his interest. This is just for me, she seemed to say. As the men left the squat and walked away without a word, or a look, or a thought, her shoulders loosened and her hands slipped back to her knees, her ring proudly facing the world.

From limp hands on skinny knees, the ring shone out, like hope. It shone through the heavy air and foul smells, and across the street, and through the ragged mosquito net with the sticky brown tape, and it snapped Alexander’s eyes suddenly into focus. Yes, he thought, her. He took a last, quick draw on his cigarette and ground it out in the damp at the bottom of his cup. His stare only left the girl for the briefest moment, as he straightened his glasses back on his nose and picked a banknote from his wallet. Clamping the wallet shut with a flick of his wrist, he tucked the note beneath the cup’s saucer and weaved out between the tables. He pushed his shirt tighter into the band of his trousers as he left the café, skipped the kerb, and crossed the street towards her. The little lizard watched and smiled.

TWO

Hanh held out her hand. The man yanked at the seat of his trousers and shifted impatiently on his feet. He rummaged in his pocket and threw an oily coin in her palm before hurrying into the passageway. As he jerked open the corru- gated tin door of the squat, it rattled dangerously and strained against its weak hinges. Hanh slid the coin into her pocket and wiped her hand on her skirt, watching the man squeeze his lumbering bulk into the tiny space behind her.

In all the time she had worked here, she never became any less surprised by the stream of men who would pay to use the filthy latrine. It didn’t matter how desperate she was – even if she’d eaten a hundred rotten mangos – she would never go in there through choice. It was dark, low- roofed and barely wider than she was. Wooden planks lay across a shallow hole, and they were always soaked with urine, slippery and stinking. In the evenings, when she was forced inside to wash the floor, she would clasp one hand tightly over her nose and mouth and bunch her skirt above her knees with the other, pushing the wet rag into the corners of the room and up the base of the walls with the toe of her sandal as quickly as she could. Black flies would nip at every scrap of her exposed skin.

The door clattered shut with a gust of foul air, and Hanh saw the man fumble urgently with his buttons and wrench his trousers to the ground. She snatched her eyes away and stared at the cracks in the pavement, listening to the man groan as he crouched over the seething hole. There was a splash from the water pail and a line of escaping water trickled past her feet, running away from the squat on its regular route to the street. The man emerged from the passage, flicking his wet hands beside him, and tiny specks hit against her cheek and arm.

It was suppertime in the Old Quarter, and all along the street the food stalls were trading. Hanh ran her hand across her stomach, feeling the sharp ridge of her bottom rib. She hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast, and it made her feel tired and impatient. Close by, a vendor was pinching pieces of yellow fat between his fingers and smearing them around the bowl of his blackened pan. The fat sizzled and smoke rose in his face. He stepped aside, rubbing his eyes. She watched jealously as he threw a handful of chopped shrimp into the spluttering pan, and her mouth began to water. The rich, salty aroma of nuoc mam lifted above all the other smells of the street, tormenting her.

She squirmed, peeling herself away from her plastic chair, and a bead of sweat dribbled down to the small of her back. Another man was walking towards her: a Party offi- cial. He stopped close and stood over her, demanding to know how much it cost to use the squat and blowing his rancid breath in her face. Hanh felt her body brace against the back of her seat. When the men talked to her it made her nervous – especially officials. They spoke as though she were nothing better than a dog. She mumbled a reply into the humid air. He snapped at her to speak up, and she gripped her hands tightly together, worrying her mother’s ring around her finger. She had argued with her mother again this morning. Hanh hated it when they argued. She tried to hold her tongue and be a good girl, like she was told, but it was difficult sometimes. Good girls did not survive long in Hanoi. Her mother didn’t understand.

Hanh hauled up a louder voice to answer the official, and he paid and disappeared into the passageway. As the water leaked along the ground beside her she slipped her grubby feet in and out of her sandals, wriggling her toes. Tonight, she would go to the river and wash, and then she would paint her toenails. She would paint her mother’s toenails too. She’d paint them a bright, happy colour. Though her mother wouldn’t be able to see from where she lay in her sickbed, she would know they had been painted and they could feel beautiful together.

The pavement was beginning to quieten, and the bicycles that jostled for space on the road were thinning too. Between their merging paths, Hanh could see into the café on the opposite side of the road. It was crowded, as it was every evening, with barely a table empty. Disgusting Dinh was there, drinking beer with the owner, and his bloodshot cheeks were glowing blue in the fluorescent light. The legs of his plastic chair bowed under the weight of his sprawling body, and he raised a fat finger to the waitress, who jumped up and scurried to his table with another full drink. The girl hurriedly wiped the condensation from Dinh’s bottle with her apron and fussed around him.

Hanh frowned, bitterly. If Dinh could afford to drink beer all night, he could afford to pay her the wages he owed. It was more than two months now since he’d given her anything for the hours she’d worked at the squat. She even called him Uncle – like he said she had to – but it made no difference. He still wouldn’t pay her. Sometimes, when her rations were low and she didn’t have money for anything extra, the bubble of air in her empty stomach would cry at her to quit. She knew she wouldn’t really, though. The Party would rather let Hanoi starve than allow private business, and what little work existed was entirely corrupt, secret and scarce. Jobs like this were rarer than tigers, and Dinh’s thin promise of some payment was better than a guarantee of none. He looked up suddenly and caught her staring. With a grin, he waved and patted his thigh, like he wanted her to sit on it. The owner of the café threw back his head and slapped Dinh on the shoulder, bellowing with laughter.

Hanh looked quickly away, her eyes scavenging over the other busy tables with their bottles of drink and bowls of steaming pho-beef broth. At the far side of the café, there was a man that caught her attention. He had white skin and was sitting alone by the window, watching the street with interest. He was probably Russian, she thought. The only foreign men in Hanoi were Russian, these days; here to trade and prop up the Party. She leaned forward just a little in her chair. It was difficult to see him properly; his table was half hidden from the pavement by a greying net. Was he the man she had seen there before? It had been the day she went to temple with Thuy, and they were laughing about the monkey they had chased away from the fruit at the altar, and Hanh thought she had seen a white man look at her, just briefly. The moment was quick, but sharp as a poker, and she hadn’t quite known what to make of it.

The man drained his cup and sparked a cigarette alight. Hanh dipped her head, but kept a curious watch through the corner of her eye. The men she knew rolled raw tobacco, and they stuffed the papers so greedily that the fibres over- flowed and stuck to their teeth. This man smoked real ciga- rettes, and he smoked with confidence. Leaning back in his chair, he stretched his arm out to his cup and flicked the ash away with one finger. He wasn’t slouching over the table like Disgusting Dinh, or bossing the waitress, or grinning stupidly. He was quiet and calm, turning the cigarette packet in his hand and tapping it on the table. To Hanh, his eyes stood out. They were small and dark and powerful.

A man butted his foot into the leg of Hanh’s chair and called her attention abruptly back to the squat. She held out her hand and took his coin. His sweat-speckled shirt was just inches from her face, stretched tight across his bloated belly, and she pinched her lips together to stop from breathing him in. He sidled into the alley, his gaze lingering brashly over her face and chest as he left, making her shudder. This was what real life was like: rude and threatening. It made her mad just to think of it. She knew she would lie awake again tonight, listening to the cramped rumble of her belly and her mother’s deep wheeze and feeling a heavy, choking fear: This is all I will ever know.

She put her head back down and stared at the pavement. Another stream of water was escaping across the concrete, down to the street. Once, Hanh tried to tell Thuy how she felt. She told her she pretended that she was that little trickle of dirty water, running away from the squat, down the street, out of the city and into the distance. She told her how she imagined she would reach the sea and be clean and free. Thuy had laughed and Hanh had laughed too, though just with her voice, and not with all her soul.

It was almost dark, now. Hanh was looking at the ground and she didn’t see him coming until he was right in front of her. He crept up and surprised her, the calm Russian with the powerful eyes. With her palm upturned and open, and her heart sparked alert, Hanh held out her hand.

 


Excerpted from The Trader of Saigon by Lucy Cruickshanks. Copyright © 2013 by Lucy Cruickshanks.
First published in Great Britain in 2013 by Heron Books, an imprint of Quercus, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW.
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.

When You Walked Back Into My Life by Hilary Boyd – Extract

When You Walked Back Into My Life

prologue

September 2009

She had slept without meaning to, then woken with a start. As soon as her eyes were open, she automatically tried his mobile number. Again it went to answer. The clock read nearly five-thirty in the morning, and she failed to stop herself imagining the worst: a bike accident, a fall on one of his climbs.

It had been a hurried goodbye, before she went to work the previous day; they’d made love when she should have been getting dressed, and she’d been late.

Her shift at the hospital finished at seven and he’d said he’d be home, that he’d pick up some fresh fish for supper, that he’d fix the lamp on her bike. But he hadn’t been home, wasn’t home now.

She was a nurse in a Brighton hospital A&E, she knew what could happen to people: the blank eyes dulled by the paramedics’ morphine, the twisted limbs, the flesh ripped and jagged, bulging dark with blood.

Please, please don’t let that be Fin.

She thought of all the places he might go – a climber by profession, there weren’t many places he could climb locally. He sometimes went along the coast to the chalk cliffs at Hope Gap. Or the climbing wall if he was teaching. But he’d only taken his pedal bike. The sleek, powerful Triumph was still here, parked in the alley that led to the tiny back garden of their house and shrouded in its metallic-silver cover.

Had he mentioned anything different about his day? She tried to recall his exact words as she hunched inside a rug on the sofa, cold and worried, staring obsessively at the display on her phone, willing it to light up. But she couldn’t remember, the sex had distracted her.

She’d already rung her own hospital to check if he’d been brought in. Should she call the police now? But they wouldn’t do anything, she knew. It was too soon. Too soon for most people, who would assume just a drunken night out. But Fin never got drunk, barely touched alcohol when he was in training, which was most of the time. A bit of dope here and there, but nothing serious. He’d never stayed out late without her, let alone all night. And he always called or texted her constantly, all day.

In the end she fell asleep again, still clutching her mobile, waking an hour later with the dawn light and immediately checking for a missed call. She knew she’d never concentrate at work so she rang in sick and asked for a second time if someone called Fin McCrea had been brought in overnight.

By teatime she was down at the police station. The constable on the desk took careful details.

‘Has he ever done this before?’ he asked.

‘Never. Not once. We’ve been together eight years and he’s always told me where he was.’

‘And you didn’t have a row or anything?’

‘Nothing.’ She wasn’t going to tell him about the lovemaking, although it seemed to prove something about their closeness.

‘Have you rung his friends? Family?’

She said that she had: his dad in Scotland, a few climbing mates. He went on asking questions, which she answered mechanically. No, he wasn’t on any medication; yes, his bike was missing; no, she didn’t know if he’d taken his passport. ‘Well, Miss, we’ll make a few enquiries, check the other hospitals. I don’t think you should worry too much. It’s early days. There’ll be a perfectly simple explanation, practically always is.’

‘Like what?’ she demanded.

The young policeman sucked his teeth. ‘Well, you know the thing. . . a bit too much to drink and finds himself on a mate’s couch in the back of beyond with no signal; maybe a sudden illness in the family, mobile on the blink . . .’

Give the man credit, she thought, he’s doing his best. ‘Seen it all,’ he added, giving her an encouraging smile. ‘So what shall I do?’ she asked, on the verge of tears.  ‘Go home. Have a good look round, see if he’s taken stuff – his passport, clothes, that sort of thing. Might’ve been called away suddenly. We’ll keep in touch, let you know as soon as we get any news.’ As she turned to go, he called after her, ‘Don’t forget to tell us if he turns up.’

She did as the policeman suggested. At home she went straight to the drawer in the desk where they kept their passports. Fin’s was gone. Then she checked his clothes, searched for the backpack he used for travelling. It was gone too, plus his climbing boots, his favourite Patagonia jacket, his waterproof trousers. She found his computer on the floor beside the bed. Logging in, she checked his emails, brought up his recent history. The emails were from days ago, just brief communications with mates, the usual bike sites, climbing blogs. Nothing that told her his plans – if he had any.

For a while she sat, numb, refusing to face the obvious: – he wasn’t missing, he wasn’t lying at the bottom of a ravine. He’d just gone climbing, left her without a word.

She began inventing excuses for him, just as the policeman had. Perhaps he’d got word of a fantastic climb, leaving immediately – she knew September was the start of the climbing season, post-monsoon, in Tibet – in some inaccessible place on the globe where there was no mobile signal. Maybe at the airport his phone had been lost or stolen and he had no time to call. Or a note gone missing . . . Had he left a note that had been blown off the table when she opened the door? She looked at once, scrabbling under the kitchen table, then under the bed. It’s barely twenty-four hours, she kept telling herself.

But when she woke the next morning and still her mobile was silent, she recognised her excuses for what they were. What she could not yet face were the implications of his absence.

She went downstairs to make a cup of tea, then punched in the number of the police station.

‘Umm, I’d like to cancel the missing persons report I made yesterday.’ She gave the reference number, feeling humiliated, a total fool.

‘Oh, hello Miss Bancroft. So you’ve found him then?’ She recognised the young PC’s voice.

‘Not exactly, but I think I know where he is.’

The policeman said nothing for a moment.

‘OK . . . so you’re sure you don’t want us to go on looking?’

‘Quite sure. Thank you.’

‘Right you are then, I’ll take it off the system. Let us know if you need any more help.’

She carefully laid her phone down on the kitchen table. With shaky steps, she climbed the stairs back up to bed and crept under the duvet. No tears now. Nor rage. Just nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing.

chapter 1

10 September 2012

 ‘I’m just nipping out to the shops for about forty-five minutes. You’ve got your glasses on, the phone is right here. Will you be OK?’ Flora fiddled with the things on the small side table, placing the phone in the most accessible position, then laid the newspaper across the old lady’s lap, open at a page about Pippa Middleton’s antics. She knew that when she came back the page would not have changed, but Dorothea Heath-Travis, aged ninety-three, liked to maintain the illusion that she read the paper in the morning.

‘I expect I shall.’ Dorothea spoke slowly and carefully – her speech had not completely recovered after her last ministroke.

‘Ring me if you need me. Or Keith. Speed-dial one for me, two for Keith.’ Flora said this every morning as she went off to do the shopping, never sure whether Dorothea would remember, if the need arose. In the two years she’d been working there, however, it never had.

The old lady looked up at Flora from her armchair by the window, an amused expression on her face; she hated fuss. But she didn’t reply, just bent her head to the paper, her white hair, thin now, neatly rolled in a small French pleat. The room was quiet, and filled with morning light that showed up the worn chair covers, the faded wallpaper and carpet – all good quality in their day, but not new now for at least fifteen years. Rene Carmichael, Dorothea’s friend, who had power of attorney for the old lady’s affairs, was always tut-tutting about the tatty state of the flat, but Dorothea seemed not to notice or, if she did, not to care.

Flora went through to the hall, taking her cardigan from the coat stand by the front door, and pulling it on over her shapeless, pale-blue uniform dress. She checked herself quickly in the ornate oval mirror on the wall and frowned. Her brown-gold eyes seemed huge in her face, which she knew was too pale, too thin. But it had been one of the wettest summers on record, barely a ray of sun until late July, and she couldn’t afford to go away . . . had no one she particularly wanted to go away with . . . Yanking the band from her ponytail, she allowed her dark hair to fall about her shoulders before scraping it back and off her face again. She preferred not to go out dressed like this unless she had a proper coat to hide the uniform, but she swallowed her pride; it was pointless to change just for a quick trip to the supermarket, and who would see her?

‘Morning, Florence.’ Keith Godly, porter for the block, poked his head sideways from behind his computer.

‘Hi, Keith. Good weekend?’ Flora asked the question without thinking. She knew what the answer would be; Keith never had a good weekend.

The porter, predictably, let out a groan and dropped his voice, flexing his muscle-bound shoulders in his dark suit. ‘Nah. Just same old, same old. Bloody whingeing tenants with leaking toilets or lost keys. That new woman in number twenty-four phoned me three times on Saturday night because a dog was howling his bloody head off somewhere! It was annoying the hell out of me too, but it wasn’t even in our block. Did she think I was fucking Superman?’

Flora nodded sympathetically. ‘The problem is you’re a sitting duck, living right under their noses.’

‘Not the only problem in my life though, eh?’

Flora gave him a wave and moved off towards the main entrance. She liked Keith, he was endlessly kind to Dorothea, helping her out with small tasks in the flat whenever Flora asked, such as fixing the bathroom light or recalibrating the Freeview box, but she didn’t feel inclined to listen again to the tale of his miserable life since he’d been forced out of the Army – his one and only passion. His back, the cause of his discharge, was fine now, he insisted. But for him, life was over.

‘Will you be here for the next half an hour?’

‘For you, Florence, I’ll be here a million lifetimes.’

His attempt at flirting was accompanied by a theatrical sigh that made her laugh, and even brought a smile to Keith’s heavy, lugubrious features.

As soon as she was outside she took a long, slow breath, happy to be in the open air on this late-summer’s day, the air sharp with a hint of approaching autumn but still pleasantly warm. Twelve hours in the flat, always on duty even when Dorothea was having her afternoon nap, was wearing, and she relished these brief moments to herself. She turned right down Gloucester Road, towards the Underground station, crossed the busy Cromwell Road and entered the arcade on the corner. The supermarket was at the far end, and she dawdled . . . checking out the face cream in Boots, which she decided she couldn’t afford, peering into the expensive jewelry boutique.

The store wasn’t busy yet. She took a hand-basket and began in the fruit and vegetable section. A Bramley apple or some plums to stew, leeks – Dorothea’s favourite – carrots, a couple of potatoes for mash. Maybe she’d get some chicken today . . . a change from the endless poached fish. She was picking out tomatoes for her own lunch, when an arm reached rudely across her and plucked a bag of organic carrots from the box to the left of the tomatoes. No ‘excuse me’, no apology. Flora, irritated, turned to glare at the owner of the arm, and froze. For a moment she held her breath, then her heart began to beat twenty to the dozen.

‘Fin?’ She was surprised that any sound came out.

The man, obviously equally taken aback, just stared at her for a moment.

‘Flora.’

She knew her pale cheeks were flushed, she could feel the warmth. She brushed a hand self-consciously across her hair, collecting the dark strands that had come loose from the band and smoothing them flat.

‘God, Flora. Is it really you?’ Fin McCrea kept staring at her.

He looks just the same, she thought, just as beautiful. Tall and athletic, he stood well over six feet, his hair, sunbleached, sticking out from his head in a wild tangle she was painfully familiar with. He wore jeans, and a faded red T-shirt sporting a Save the Children logo, the ubiquitous black daypack slung across his broad shoulders.

‘What . . . what are you doing here?’ he was asking. ‘Shopping?’ She smiled and so did he, his light grey eyes creasing with amusement. ‘How about you?’ she added. ‘Not your usual neck of the woods, West London.’

Flora talked, but she hardly knew what she was saying. It had been all but three years – she knew almost to the hour how long – since she had seen him last.

Fin put his basket down by his feet and shook his head. ‘Long story. I’m staying with a mate at the bottom of Queen’s Gate. I had a pretty bad fall in January.’

‘What happened?’ She asked more to give herself time than because she wanted the grisly details.

‘I was in Chamonix, guiding this old Italian, and the ledge I was standing on collapsed . . . sodding rock just fell off the side  of  the  mountain.  He  was  OK,  miraculously,  but  I smashed into the rock face and just broke up. They flew me back to the UK and it was all mending fine, except the pin in my leg’s playing up now. I had to go back into hospital.’ As he talked, she just watched him, watched every movement of his face, noted his square hand clutching the strap of his bag and the golden hairs on his permanently tanned arms.

‘But everything else is OK?’

He shrugged. ‘S’pose . . . I had a bust pelvis, compound fracture of my thigh.’ He tapped his right leg. ‘Two cracked lumbar vertebrae, God knows what else – the docs got bored of telling me. Can’t stand London, as you know, but it’s easier to be near the hospital for all the follow-up stuff. They’ve put more metal plates in me than a Sherman tank.’ He looked questioningly at her, as if he were waiting for her story now.

‘Sounds as if you’re lucky to be alive.’

‘Lucky to be alive and walking, so the doctor says,’ he agreed, his face breaking into an uncertain grin.

There was a paralysed silence. Flora didn’t know what to say, where to look; adrenaline was coursing through her body making her shaky and cold. She clung to the black plastic handle of the basket as if it were her lifeline.

‘I’d better get going. I’m on duty,’ she said eventually, but remained rooted to the spot.

‘You’re not at the Charing Cross are you? That’s where I’ve been . . . on and off all year. How weird would that be? Us in the same place and not knowing it.’

‘No, no, I’m doing private nursing at the moment – just down the road. I needed a break.’

Finlay McCrea and her, standing in the middle of a London supermarket, making polite conversation as if they were old mates catching up? She suddenly needed to get away from him.

‘Flora.’ As she turned to go, he reached out and touched her arm, sending a shock through her body as if he’d been electrically charged. ‘It’s . . . incredible to see you. Seems like a lifetime. Don’t go without telling me how I can get hold of you.’

She felt a spurt of anger. ‘What for?’

He looked surprised at her tone. ‘Well, er, I thought we could meet up. Have a drink or something while I’m around?’

A drink? It sounded so normal. As if going for a drink could ever contain the maelstrom of feelings she had for this man. ‘Sorry . . . it’s . . . it’s not such a good time. I’ve got a lot on.’

She noted his crestfallen expression. ‘But it’s been good to see you too,’ she added, hearing the formal, almost prim tone of her voice as she hurried away and instantly regretting it.

The rest of the shopping was conducted in a blur. She moved up and down the aisles, plucking the necessary items mechanically from the shelves, not daring to look up from her task in case she saw him again. She felt lightheaded, but she kept focused until she was safely out of the store, then almost ran back to Dorothea’s flat as if the devil were on her tail.

Keith hadn’t moved from his desk. He looked up as she shot round the corner.

No need to panic. I haven’t heard a peep out of her.’ ‘Oh . . . thanks, thanks for keeping an eye.’

‘You OK?’ He peered at her through the gloom of the hall.

‘Fine, yes.’ She smiled brightly and hurriedly closed the door of the flat behind her, only able to relax when she had a physical barrier between herself and Fin McCrea.

 *****

That evening Flora stood in her sister’s immaculate, state-of-the-art kitchen, telling her about the supermarket encounter. It was nearly nine – Flora only finished work at eight, and Prue was just back from a gallery opening in the West End.

Prue took a wine glass from the cupboard and set it on the polished black granite worktop with a sharp click. She poured out red wine from an already opened bottle of Australian Shiraz and handed it to Flora, her face set and angry.

‘Bloody man.’

Prue, three years Flora’s senior, was about as unlike her sister as it was possible to be and yet still be related. She looked good for her forty-four years, her clothes classic and expensive, giving only a passing nod to trend. Her hair, short, layered and tastefully blonde, framed a round face, seldom seen without extensive make-up; her nails were long, manicured, and varnished a rich, shiny crimson. The only similarity to her sister was her gold-flecked brown eyes. Financially ambitious from an early age, Prue was now an interior designer of considerable fame and popularity amongst the international set with homes in London; she never stopped working. Her husband, Philip, a lawyer, was usually the one at home making supper for their teenage daughter, Bel.

‘He wanted to have a drink with me,’ Flora said. She had somehow managed to get through the rest of the day with some semblance of normality. Rene had come round for tea with Dorothea, the doctor had visited, Mary, the night nurse, had bent her ear about what they would all do if Dorothea died. So she hadn’t yet had time to make sense of what had happened.

‘And you said no, right?’ Prue asked, not really concentrating as she checked her BlackBerry and replied at once to whatever message she’d just received – Prue’s phone was never more than grabbing distance from her hand. Laying it temporarily on the counter, she opened the fridge and pulled out a box of butternut squash and sage ravioli, a bag of watercress, a lemon and a block of Parmesan cheese. ‘Have you eaten?’

Flora shook her head. ‘Where are Philip and Bel?’

‘Bel’s staying with Holly . . . getting up to some unspeakable fifteen-year-old mischief, no doubt. And Philip is having dinner with an old college mate.’ Prue stopped what she was doing to peer closely at her sister. ‘You didn’t give him your number, did you?’

‘No, no, of course I didn’t.’ And then she burst into tears. ‘Darling . . . come here.’ Prue wrapped Flora in her arms and held her close. ‘Poor you, it must have been a terrible shock.’

Flora rested in her sister’s embrace for only a moment before pulling away and wiping the tears away with the back of her cardigan sleeve. Prue made a disapproving face and passed her a piece of kitchen roll.

‘It was a shock.’

‘What was he doing in Waitrose in the Cromwell Road for Christ’s sake? He spends his entire life up a mountain.’ ‘He had a bad fall, he said. He was in Charing Cross Hospital getting his leg fixed.’ Flora took a gulp of wine and pulled herself up onto one of the high beechwood stools that lined a side of the square island in the centre of the kitchen. Her sister’s house always amazed her. She realised, of course, that it was Prue’s calling card for her design business, but still, there was no mess anywhere, none of the normal clutter, nothing out of the cupboards and drawers at all. Just clean, blank lines and gleaming surfaces, punctuated by an occasional art work, an elegant vase of flowers, some tasteful arrangement of fruit. Not even salt and pepper mills or a bottle of olive oil sullied the black polished perfection of the kitchen.

‘Serves him right, stupid sod.’ Prue smacked a pan of water down on the stove, repeatedly jabbing at the controls of the black ceramic hob until the halogen plate was glowing.

She leaned across the central island. ‘You don’t want to see him again, do you? After what he did? You’d be insane.’

‘No . . .’

In the face of her sister’s indignation, Flora wasn’t going to argue – too much like hard work right now – but it didn’t seem as black and white to her. Part of her wanted more than anything else in the world to sit with Fin McCrea and talk and laugh – and perhaps experience the intense sexual energy that had always existed between them. But part of her wanted to run a million miles in the opposite direction, so terrified was she at the thought that she might depend on him in any way again.

Prue looked at her suspiciously. ‘You don’t sound at all certain.’ She topped up Flora’s glass and went to check on the water. It had boiled, and she tipped in the ravioli, prodding with a wooden spoon to separate the pouches.

‘I suppose I’m not.’

‘Uh?’ Prue spun round, letting out a gasp of horror. ‘Flora!’

Flora held up her hand. ‘OK, OK, I know what you’re saying and I agree, of course I do. But . . .’

‘But nothing. You can’t go there, darling. You really can’t. Eight years together and he walked out on you, never called you, never even wrote. Just disappeared up one of his sodding, bloody mountains.’

Flora met her sister’s angry stare. ‘I know all that.’

‘No, you can’t. Not if you’re even contemplating spending a single second in that bastard’s company.’ Prue paused, as if she were gathering together her arsenal before an attack. ‘He broke your heart. He wrecked your career. He made it unlikely you’d have the children you always wanted, and he sent you into a depression that you’re only now recovering from. What part of this sounds like a good idea to you?’

Flora had to admit Prue was right, but that didn’t mean that meeting Fin hadn’t triggered all the feelings that, for nearly three years, she’d been trying to quash. Mostly unsuccessfully. The therapist to whom she’d been assigned when she’d been depressed had said she needed ‘closure’, to be able to draw a line under the relationship. But how could she do that without learning why he’d walked out on her so suddenly? Perhaps, she thought, it was important to see him again: to realise for herself what a selfish bastard he was, rather than just being told so by everyone else. She ignored the voice in her head, which said, ‘That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.’

‘Hello? Speak to me . . .’ Prue was waving the spoon in front of her sister’s face.

Flora smiled. ‘Sorry. Just thinking. You don’t need to worry. It’s not like he’s after me any more. If he was he’d have got in touch years ago. He knows where you live.’

Prue looked away for a moment. She seemed to be about to say something, then apparently changed her mind.

‘Anyway, I didn’t give him my number.’

‘Bloody good thing too,’ Prue pursed her lips, glaring off across the room. ‘It’s not his agenda I’m worried about . . .’ she added.

 *****

After supper, Flora made her way downstairs to the flat in the basement of her sister’s large Cornwall Crescent house near Ladbroke Grove. However irritated Flora got with what she considered her sister’s blunt, pragmatic approach to life, it had been Prue who had scooped Flora up after Fin’s defection and brought her to live with her and Philip. Later, when she fell badly behind with the mortgage payments on the house in Brighton, Prue had suggested she sell up and stay with them, rent the basement flat on a ‘mate’s rates’ basis. Flora had reluctantly agreed, helpless in the face of her incapacity. Her only certainty back then, which had been a steady beacon in her darkness, was the absolute certainty that Fin would come back – today, tomorrow, next week . . . But as the months passed and he didn’t, her depression deepened.

Up until that September day three years ago, Flora had considered her life a good one. She loved her job in the A&E department, relished the frantic, unpredictable, life-or-death nature of the work – so much more exciting than the more mundane pace of ward life. And she had Fin.

True, his work – and obsession – was climbing mountains, and there weren’t too many of those in Brighton, so he was away a lot. And when he was home, he was restless from day one, champing to get out of the city again. As soon as she was off duty for a few days, he would whisk her away, both of them astride his sleek Triumph America. They had seen the dawn rise from the top of Mount Snowdon, they had camped out in Swiss mountain huts with the goats, hiked up Kilimanjaro, driven across the desert to Timbuktu, literally. If her duty rota meant they were stuck at home, he would smoke a bit of dope, tinker with the bike and make mostly botched attempts at renovating their tiny terraced house, seven minutes’ walk from the sea. And threaded through all the adventures was that powerful sexual charge, which Flora sometimes felt controlled her as much as any drug. She and Fin might be having supper, getting up in the morning, walking along the seafront, and one look would catapult them both into an almost unseemly desire to possess each other. When he came back from one of his expeditions, perhaps having been away for a month or two, they would spend whole weekends in bed. Fin wasn’t just a boyfriend: for eight years he had been a way of life for Flora.

Thankful to be home, away from Prue’s nagging, Flora ran a bath and sank into the too-hot water with relief. She had drunk a lot of red wine but barely touched the butternut ravioli; she felt muddled and a bit queasy. All she could see as she lay still, the water almost up to her neck, was those light grey eyes she knew better than her own, their expression always containing vanity and a certain vagueness, a detachment from the reality around him, but also a balancing humour and charm, which was how he connected with the world.

She wondered if he had changed. But what does it matter if he has or he hasn’t ? she asked herself. I blew him out, he won’t bother to try and find me. And acknowledging that, she felt an almost painful sense of loss.


Excerpted from When You Walked Back Into My Life by Hilary Boyd. Copyright © 2013 by Hilary Boyd.
First published in Great Britain in 2013 by Quercus Editions Ltd. Quercus, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW.
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