Category Archives: January 2014

Dead Letter Drop by Peter James – Extract

Dead Letter Drop

1

There is a strange sensation you get when you know someone has entered your room but you haven’t yet seen or heard him. You just feel him there. I got that feeling in my bedroom late one night. It was very late and very dark.

I had had the same chill before on a thousand different occasions, in a thousand different circumstances; a car breaking its grip on a wet road, an aeroplane dropping 5,000 feet in an air pocket, a shadow coming from a dark alley.

There was definitely someone in the room. He wasn’t a friend. Friends don’t drop by into my bedroom at 2.30 in the morning – not on the thirty-second floor of a building where the elevator has been switched off, and the key is in my jacket pocket, hanging on a chair near the bed, where there are 3 Ingersoll ten-lever deadlocks, 2 Chubb two-bolt upright mortices, a Yale No. 1, and a double safety chain, not to mention a 24-hour armed door surveillance, making entry to this building harder than the exit from most jails. He was no friend. I didn’t move. He didn’t move. I had an advantage over him: he thought I was asleep. He had a better advantage over me: he’d probably been in the dark for a long time and his eyes would be well accustomed to it. He had one bigger advantage still: he wasn’t sprawled, stark naked, dripping in baby oil, with one foot manacled to the bedstead, and he didn’t have a quietly sleeping naked bird occupying the 5 feet 11½ inches that separated an extremely greasy hand from an uncocked Beretta.

I spent the next several tenths of a second debating what to do. My visitor obviously wasn’t going to hang about for the rest of the evening – he’d have to have been a very dedicated voyeur to go to such lengths. He certainly wasn’t any kind of cat burglar out to steal anything – the place didn’t have any valuables, neither the Fort Knox nor the National Gallery variety; there was nothing in it that a colour-blind midget with an IQ of 24 couldn’t have bought from a Bloomingdale’s sale in half an hour flat for a couple of thousand dollars – and in fact probably had. What there was could best be described as embryonic Jewish Renaissance, and constituted the equivalent amount of personal effects you are likely to encounter walking into a room of a half-built Holiday Inn.

My visitor didn’t seem like he wanted to chat. If he did, he’d probably have opened the dialogue by now. No, the most likely reason for his visit, I concluded in the two-tenths of a second it took me to weigh up the alternatives, was to do some killing.

On account of lack of choice the most likely victims seemed to be either Sumpy or me. Sumpy is a variation of ‘sump’ – a nickname I gave her for her fascination with Johnson’s Baby Oil – at the procreation end, which is what she seemed to think it was for, rather than at the end product of same for which it was originally intended. If the visitor was for her it could only have been some jilted lover; since Houdini had died before she was born I ruled out the possibility of the caller being for her.

All of a sudden I felt lonely. Our house guest must have just about figured out who was who by now; a 9-millimetre silenced parabellum slug for me and a razor for her so she wouldn’t be waking the neighbours with any hollering.

There was no way I could make it to my gun in time.

There was no way I could swing my right foot high into the air and bring that bedstead crashing down on his head prior to having to retrieve my brains and most of my skull from my neighbour’s apartment. It was equally unlikely that if I remained still he might go away.

The bang came. Not a quiet, silenced plug sound but a great, hefty, high-velocity, 200-grain magnum .44 explosion, and death descended on me. It was a hot, dark thump; a huge, great weight that crushed my bone and shot the wind out of me, shot all the wind out of me. It was damp and bloody and hurt like hell. It was the son-of-a-bitch visitor himself.

He lay there, sprawled over the top of me, revolver sticking in his mouth and most of the back of his skull deposited out onto Park Avenue.

I sat up, managed to get the lights on. There were shouts. There were yells and footsteps and bells and sirens and pounding sounds, and Sumpy woke up without even opening her eyes and asked if I had gone mad and went back to sleep again.

I disentangled my foot and staggered to the kitchen to put the kettle on – it didn’t look as if I was going to get much more sleep that night. I cracked my head on a cupboard door because I was confused. Reckon I had a right to be. Someone had gone to a lot of trouble to commit suicide.

2

What a hell of a night it had been. I wanted to spend the morning forgetting it for a few hours. It was a glorious, cold, November Sunday morning and Manhattan looked just great. Only a few factories and few exhaust pipes were chucking their excrement into the sky. The World Trade Centre and the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building and all the rest of Manhattan’s fantastic skyline stood crisp and clear against and into the sky, just as all its creators had ever envisioned it should.

Sumpy and I stood wrapped in our coats on the open deck of the Staten Island ferry with the water of the Hudson river churning past us. I took a large bite from the still-warm potato knish I had been carrying in a paper bag in my pocket, and hoped it would mop up some of the pints and pints of coffee that swilled in my insides and take the taste of the Marlboros and Winstons and Salems and Tareyton Lights and Camel Lights and Cools and Mores and Chesterfields and all the other cigarettes I had been able to scrounge during the night, out of my mouth and throat and lungs and everywhere else.

That knish tasted good. It came from Yonah Schimmel’s. The Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery is one of the great eating establishments of the world; if the Michelin gastronomic guide extended to the US it would surely mention it as ‘worthy of a detour’. Anybody who hasn’t been there has to go. It is spectacularly insignificant in appearance; it sits in one of the dirtiest, dreariest, grungiest places on God’s earth, deep in the heart of Manhattan, on the forlorn border between the East Village and Lower East Side, a bottle cap’s flick from the Bowery; a solitary five-storey brownstone with a yellow facia board that stands next to the yard of Blevitzky Bros Monuments, where two elderly vans sit, sagging on their suspension, behind collapsing wire-fencing. The street in front is a dismal dual carriageway with odd bits of barren shrubbery; there are morose and grubby people wandering around, and bits of garbage rolling along in the wind. It could pass with no difficulty as a suburb of any of a hundred American cities.

The inside isn’t much of an improvement. A sign behind a high counter invites the clientele to ‘Try our new cherry cheesecake knish!’ and looks at least 10 years old. Behind the counter stands a short elderly man in a white apron with the burden of the world on his shoulders. The restaurant is empty except for two men in battered leather jackets deep in discussion but he still doesn’t have much time to spare to take orders. He marches over to a dumb waiter, a real one with a rope pull, and barks down the shaft, then stands on guard beside it with the hapless look of a sentry on a winter’s night.

What comes up from that dumb waiter, however, is pure gold; busting with every conceivable filling – large, heavy, lovingly misshapen, immensely fattening and doubtlessly knee-deep in cholesterol.

Early on that Sunday morning, paradise was a warm Yonah Schimmel potato knish, eaten with the salted breeze of the Hudson and the warm perfume of Sumpy.

I’d kept the truth from her so far. What she thought was simply that we’d had an intruder and I had shot him. I decided that for the time being, and probably for ever, it was best to leave it that way. She thought I’d done something brave and heroic in saving both our lives. I’d no desire to take false credit, but on the other hand she was a bright girl and I didn’t want to set her thinking too much in case she came to the realisation that there might be more to my job in the plastic box manufacturing business than met the ordinary long, short or squint-sighted naked eye. And that wouldn’t be any good at all.

So Mr Big Hero took another bite of his potato knish and stared out at the badlands and goodlands of sleepytime Staten Island, where 328,000 Americans were waking to a bright, sunny, all-American Sunday morning, to the New York Sunday Times crossword, and waffles, syrup and bacon, and a gentle screw, and toothpaste, and coffee, and no clatter of the garbage trucks today.

‘It’s cold,’ she said, and she was right; it was cold, damn cold and it felt good, for in the warm a soft slunky feeling would have crept straight up my body and put me in the land of nod, and there wasn’t going to be any nod for a long time yet, because when we got back to Manhattan I was going to have to go into the police station at West 54th and spend most of this beautiful day inside its dismal grey walls, answering questions and filling out forms and watching the dregs and misfits and victims of humanity be dragged interminably in and out, for speeding, murder, pickpocketing, mugging, knifing, raping, and reporting lost tabby cats and black widow spiders.

There was no shortage of forms, and carbon copies to go under the forms, and columns to be filled in on the forms. I could have done it all myself in about ten minutes flat, with the aid of a couple of IBM computers and three dozen secretaries; unfortunately the only equipment that the city of New York could offer me was a battered, old, manual Olivetti, with a lower-case ‘t’ that had broken off, and a pair of index fingers attached to 18 stone of fatted flesh in a uniform grubby enough to give anorexia to a clothes moth. His dexterity at extricating his breakfast from his teeth with one finger, picking his nose with another, his ear with a third and typing at the same time was remarkable; but it was the typing that suffered the most.

Relays of coffee arrived in receptacles that made British Rail’s plastic beakers seem like Crown Derby. There were no knishes and doughnuts weren’t available on this block on a Sunday; none others were worth eating, the resident doughnut expert informed me, but there was a Puerto Rican topless go-go dancer who did blow jobs in the men’s room of a coke den up in Harlem Sunday lunchtime, if I was interested in taking a ride. But it didn’t particularly appeal.

The keys clacked intermittently, punctuated by the odd curse as he filled in the lower-case ‘t’s by hand, and I began, gratefully, to drift into a few minutes of sleep. When I woke, Supertypist had an added burden to his bogeys and his breakfast and his Olivetti: some idiot had given him a carton of honey-barbecued spare ribs.

Several hours later the last rib hit the waste bin and the last sheet of the forms was wrenched out of the machine. I read through it and put my signature on it, and he read through it and put his ‘X’ on it and smudged it. My hand was shaken and my back patted. I had been a good boy. I had grappled fearlessly with an intruder, seized his weapon, shot him, and then had the good sense to call the police and fill out their forms for them, and there would be no need for me to attend the inquest, and if I would care to step outside it would be nothing short of a pleasure for the City of New York to provide me with a freebie ride home in a patrol car.

I was tired – dog, dog tired – and wanted out of that police station and into bed. I went outside and breathed the chill air, and watched the steam pouring out of a subway vent in the road, and listened to the distant hum of cars and far-off sirens. Peace. It was growing dark; some streetlamps were on, the rest were flickering to get on. Sumpy would be at her apartment by now, back from lunch with her brother and sister-in-law and their three kids in their house by the sea down in Mamaroneck; just the normal routine of a normal life.

The car pulled up for me, four great burly cops inside. They all looked reasonably alert – it’s strange how you can tell something like that just from shadows or silhouettes, but you can. One in the back stepped out to hold the door for me and then climbed in after me; I sat in the middle of the back seat, snugly wedged between two uniformed hulks. They were big, comfortingly big. I lounged back into the greasy vinyl and inhaled the smell of plastic and stale cigarettes that most American cars smell of, and listened to the tramp, tramp noise of the tyres that all American cars make. I felt relaxed and was about to start up some friendly chatter when I felt a hard thin object slide in between my thighs and come firmly to rest against my right ball.

‘Don troi nuttin.’

I don’t know what the hell they expected me to try. Even if they were all unconscious the only way I could have got out of that car would have been to have drilled a hole in the roof. All of a sudden I felt very awake again. I felt very awake, but I knew I was tired, overtired, dangerously overtired, and that’s not good.

3

One half of me was sorely tempted not to bother to find out who they were, or where they were taking me, or what they planned to do, but just to crash out, let them take me wherever they planned and let the chips fall where they might.

The other half of me that had kept me out of the long wooden box for over three decades wasn’t going to have any of it. Secretly I was glad about that.

‘Know thine enemy,’ says the Good Book. On my 18 months’ intensive training in the Highlands six years back I’d been told much the same. I studied them, listening to their chatter: not a great deal to listen to – scrambled eggs for brains in their dialogue department; the highlight of their conversation was whether it would be better to take the first, second or third left to get to the Henry Hudson Parkway. They could count to three.

They were goons, four big rented goons, and I had an ominous feeling that they hadn’t got the wrong man; I could almost hear a cement-mixer grinding away in the trunk, making the quick-drying concrete for a pair of snug-fitting size 9½ boots.

I stared through the hairs in the goon on my right’s nostrils at the far-away lights of the Bronx as we cruised up the west bank of the Hudson, along the scenic Palisades Parkway past the neatly mown grass and the neatly trimmed hedges and the neatly painted signs to the neatly laid-out beauty spots – all carefully done to show how wealthy and prosperous the State of New Jersey was compared to its shabby neighbour on the other side of that deep, deep river. And tonight it looked deeper than ever.

There was an acute pain in my backside. What had felt like a small lump at the beginning of the ride was hurting more and more at each bump we went over. It was something I was sitting on. The pain, combined with the jabs from the shooter in my private parts every time we jolted, was beginning to make me feel irritable.

The two-way radio suddenly crackled into life. ‘Bravo Delta, are you on time for the wedding?’

One of the goons in the front replied, ‘Bravo Delta picked up the groom.’

There was a pause while the usual squawks and screeches came through the speaker, then, ‘Roger, Bravo Delta, we’re on our way to collect the bride. See you at the church.’

‘You got it,’ said the goon.

It didn’t tax my brain a great deal to work out who the bride might be, but just to help me out the goon in the front passenger seat, whose teeth looked like they had suffered a bad attack from termites, and whose breath smelt like he’d been drinking from a rain-tub full of dead bats, turned the ghastly assembly of scars, dents, spots and boils, perched above his neck and below his hat, that passed as his head. ‘Means your broad, sweetheart.’

If nothing else, this gem of English syntax annihilated the remainder of my fears about them having the wrong man. However, it didn’t make the pain in my backside any better, and it didn’t make me feel any happier. Nor did it give me any better clue as to who they were or what they wanted: a corpse, or a source of information – at the end of it all, probably both. I wasn’t overly inclined towards letting them have either; however, in light of the current situation, unless I did something pretty smart, and pretty quickly, it didn’t seem that my opinion was going to amount to a hill of beans.

We turned off the Parkway onto 9 West, curving round and underneath the Parkway onto a thickly wooded two-lane road. It was starting to rain; it was light rain, but it hit the car with a distinct slashing sound – a sound I had heard before when it rained in temperatures as cold as it was today: freezing rain – one of the most lethal of all driving hazards. To the driver it looks like ordinary rain, and it is, except that the moment it touches the surface it turns to ice; within moments of freezing rain starting, the road turns into an ice rink. It is not an uncommon phenomenon in the north eastern seaboard states during the winter. It is very difficult and very frightening to drive on. Muttered curses from the front seat, and the motion of the speed of the car easing slightly, indicated that the driver had recognised the hazard; whilst this rain lasted, and it wouldn’t last for long, I didn’t have to worry about the driver.

I tried in the gloom to study as best I could the shooter that was wedged between my legs; it was either a Smith and Wesson .44 revolver or a cheap copy cranked out by some back-street supplier. Either way it would be about the nearest thing to a hand-held Howitzer, well capable of carrying my crown jewels down through the seat and out through the bottom of the car. If it was a copy then I needed to worry about the trigger mechanism since it probably would be unreliable and more than a little sensitive to the slightest movement – ideal for the type of gorilla holding it, since his breed were not the type to discriminate too much about when or where their shooters went off just as long as they went off long enough and often enough to keep them on someone’s payroll.

The goon on my right was gazing out the window, off guard. The one in the passenger seat in front was wiping condensation off the windshield. Through the windshield, a long way ahead, was a green traffic light. Between us and the traffic light was the battery of tail lights of a large truck, probably a tractor-trailer. We were travelling downhill, and too quickly for the surface.

The goon in the front passenger seat switched on the ordinary radio; a commercial jingle blared out. The music stopped and a jolly voice told us all what rotten, lousy, stinking husbands we’d all be if we didn’t rush out instantly and make arrangements to have Whamtrash drainage systems installed in our homes and make life for our wives one whole lot easier. From the silence of the goons I could only think they were contemplating the advantages of a Whamtrash system.

‘One of your friends came into my apartment last night and shot the wrong guy,’ I announced.

The goon with the halitosis swivelled his head around.

‘Shaddup.’ He turned his head back to watch the road.

The traffic light was turning red. The radio told us of amazing bargains to be had at a local Pontiac dealer. All we had to do was go there and ask for Elmer Hyams. Elmer Hyams would do us real good. We would do our family unit a lot of good by buying a brand new Pontiac. We couldn’t buy a brand new Pontiac anywhere else in the United States of America cheaper than by dropping in and saying ‘Hi!’ to Elmer Hyams.

I rammed my left thumb down hard, real hard, into the trigger mechanism of the goon’s 44 and felt the hammer hit my thumb, hit it hard; my right hand smashed down on the reflex nerve of his gun hand, the gun jerked up and I jerked my thumb out; the hammer carried on down to the shell, hit the shell good and hard; the bullet blew out and took a chunk out of the roof; another bullet blew out and took another chunk out of the roof; another bullet blew out and took off most of the roof of the goon on my right’s head; another bullet blew out and went in between the goon in the front seat’s shoulder blades, and came out of his chest carrying most of his heart with it, and took most of his heart out through the windshield and into the New Jersey countryside.

I now had the gun. The driver had both hands on the wheel and was trying to see what was going on in the back. He forgot for a moment about the red light and the truck that had stopped, then remembered. He stamped on the anchors on the iced-up road and was turning the wheel this way and that. I thumped the goon on my left’s balls so hard he jumped up in the air. I had the door handle down and shoved him hard before he came back down in his seat, shoved him out into the road, and I was rolling out there with him. Another bullet blew out and went through his Adam’s apple. I thumped into the grass verge and rolled over. I saw the big black car do one complete circle and then slide, nose first, straight under the long, long tailgate of that big, big truck, and that tailgate swallowed up the big black car as it went further and further under, slicing through the windshield, and through the steering wheel, and clean through the necks of the driver and his passenger, depositing their heads in the lap of the goon in the rear seat; it carried right on, slicing through the neck of the goon in the rear seat and depositing what was left of his head out through the rear windshield, so it rolled down the trunk of the car, bounced off the rear fender, and came to a rest a little way up the road.

The stabbing pain in my ass was still there. I gingerly felt my behind and found a big lump, a big, sharp lump. I pulled, and it came away from my trousers, and I held it up in the gloom: it was a set of false teeth.

I sat down, took some gulps of air and carbon monoxide.

The highway had gone very quiet. Away up, I could hear the sounds of the truck driver retching. It was the only sound and it went on for a long time.

4

I was working in New York for the Intercontinental Plastics Corporation. The company occupied seven of the thirtytwo floors of the modern high-rise office block at 355 Park Avenue. Six of the floors were lumped together, the fourteenth to the nineteenth; the seventh was the penthouse floor, containing two private apartments for visiting clients or executives. No doubt in order to spare the expense of renting me lodgings during my lengthy stay over here. I was billeted in one of these apartments.

The company looked smart and successful. Its offices were plush, the receptionist and secretaries were pretty, and the facade of the building, with its brown steel and smoked glass, oozed the aura of money.

Intercontinental Plastics Corporation started life under a less grand name: the Idaho Wooden Box Company. It was founded by an out-of-work chicken sexer midway through the Depression. His name was Leo Zlimvaier. A Russian by birth, his father had emigrated with his family to the United States early in the twentieth century.

It was a familiar story. Leo was one of nine children who found themselves uprooted from their home, herded under the decks of an overcrowded boat and thrown around the ocean for weeks on end, amid sweat and vomit and a hundred other discomforts. Eventually young Leo and his family were disgorged into the full glory of the USA, and found themselves at the focal point of Western civilisation: in New York Central Station.

There was a choice open to them of five different railroad tickets. Leo Zlimvaier’s father picked the one that, unknown to him at the time, assured him and his family of the bleakest of the five futures on offer. Two and a half days later they emerged, blinking and stupefied, into the bowels of God’s country: Boise, Idaho. The first blinding realisation to hit Zlimvaier Senior as he stepped down onto the soil was this: they were in the middle of absolutely nowhere.

Zlimvaier struggled hard, and managed to feed and clothe his family. One by one, as soon as the children became old enough, he gave them as many dollars as he could spare and sent them off into the world to fend for themselves.

Leo’s turn came as the Depression was starting. He was armed only with a few dollars and a working knowledge of his father’s own profession: chicken sexing. Handicapped by poverty, but no idiot, he came to the rapid conclusion that nobody in the spring of 1930 in Boise, Idaho, or its environs, stood much chance of getting rich out of chicken sexing.

There was, he was soon to discover, an acute shortage of fruit boxes since, owing to the general shortage of jobs, much of the populace had taken to selling apples and other fruit in the streets. Wood, he found out, came cheap, in the form of millions upon millions of trees that no one seemed to be interested in.

Leo Zlimvaier set to work, with the simplest of tools and sheer sweat, turning trees into fruit boxes. There was no shortage of customers for his boxes and he rapidly discovered that with money in his pocket it was easy to find others willing to make the fruit boxes for him. Within 12 months he had built a very large shed and had 75 people working in it. Although he wasn’t as yet fully aware of it he was on his way to ranking alongside Charles Darrow, the inventor of Monopoly, and Leo Burnett, founder of the massive advertising agency, and many others who founded vast fortunes during the Depression years.

As the profits piled up, Zlimvaier started investing in machinery that could make fruit boxes very much quicker than the out-of-work engineers and stockbrokers and taxi drivers and insurance salesmen and such like, that were his workforce. Soon his shed was 3 times its original size, contained only 30 men, and churned out 100 times as many fruit boxes as before. At the very height of the Depression Zlimvaier bought his first Cadillac.

He married and produced a son, Dwight, but neither wife nor child really interested him. He was obsessed by boxes. Daily, people were writing to him, asking if he could produce other types of boxes. He started producing boxes for companies instead of farmers. He found the companies would pay higher prices and not quibble, so long as they got their deliveries.

A second factory was started, and the name of the company was changed to the National Business Box Company. Soon Zlimvaier was manufacturing everything from medicine chests to filing cabinets to safes. When the Second World War arrived Zlimvaier changed the name of the company again, this time to the National Munitions Box Corporation. One in every three packing cases and one in every three boxes containing ammunition used by the United States forces during the entire war was made by Leo Zlimvaier’s factories.

After the war he started experimenting with plastics. Soon he was producing plastic drink-dispensers, plastic filing cabinets, plastic golf-bags: he produced, in plastic, anything into which something else could be put. He changed the name yet again, now to the National Plastic Box Corporation.

Computers started to appear in general usage in business. At that time they were unsightly piles of spaghetti wiring, searing valves, sheets of raw welded metal, whirring tapes, sprawling over a considerable acreage of floor space in what had once been neat and efficient-looking offices. The National Plastic Box Corporation managed to produce smart cabinets for them so that all became concealed behind grey or blue boxes with a few impressive rows of switches and blinking lights.

Leo Zlimvaier went international and opened his first factory abroad, on an industrial estate between Slough and London’s Heathrow Airport. He once again changed the name of the company. It became the Intercontinental Plastics Corporation. Six months later Zlimvaier keeled over with a massive heart attack and died. His widow inherited the lot. She had no idea the business had ever expanded from the one original shed, which still churned out fruit boxes. She made their 19-year-old son chairman and chief executive. It was the second biggest mistake of her life; her first was marrying Zlimvaier.

As far as the Intercontinental Plastics Corporation was concerned, Dwight Zlimvaier was not his father’s son by any stretch of the imagination. He was not interested in plastic and he was not interested in business. His sole consuming passion in life was collecting butterflies. It was only with the greatest reluctance that he dragged himself away from the slaughter, framing and cataloguing of these creatures to sign cheques and approve major decisions. Within four years of his father’s death the profits of Intercontinental had slumped to an all-time low. Five factories were closing down through lack of work. The company was easy prey for the take-over brigade.

In an extremely complex and carefully planned succession of transactions the Intercontinental Plastics Corporation was bought by a consortium in England. This consortium needed a legitimate front under which to operate in the United States. Only a handful of Englishmen knew the true identity of this consortium: it was M15.


Excerpted from Dead Letter Drop by Peter James. Copyright © 1981 by Peter James.
First published 1981 by W. H. Allen. This edition published 2014 by Pan Books, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

The Mermaid of Brooklyn by Amy Shearn – Extract

The Mermaid of Brooklyn

one

Before I died the first time, my husband left me broke and alone with our two tiny children and it made me feel very depressed, etc. It’s the same old story: he went to buy cigarettes and never came home. Really. Wouldn’t you think you’d want to pack a bag or two, leave a forwarding address? couldn’t he have at least taken the dog? These were the things I wondered in the beginning. not: was he having an affair, or: was he mixed up in something nefarious, but: I can’t believe he wouldn’t bring his datebook, his favorite loafers; I can’t believe he didn’t change the lightbulb in the hallway before deserting us. he knew I couldn’t reach that lightbulb. The whole thing was unlike him. Then again, I was the one who died, which was unlike me, too.

I would be lying if I said his leaving wasn’t a tiny bit of a relief, at least at first. My initial thought—due mostly to sleep deprivation, the effects of which, as any mother or political prisoner knows, never entirely fade—was that once the girls were in bed, I could ignore the dishes to be done and laundry (still in a compact three-day-old brick from the Laundromat drop-off service) to be put away; I could take a bath and then sleep (until Rose’s next feeding) in a big empty bed with pillows mounded up on either side. I wouldn’t need to make a grown-up meal for Harry, who annoyingly preferred dishes seasoned with things other than butter, and who inconveniently favored dinner conversation consisting of topics other than whether or not mermaids existed and, if so, whether or not their mommies made them take baths. I would not need to stifle the yawns that he mistook for boredom as he dramatically recounted the undramatic details of his day. I would not need to come up with a compelling excuse to avoid sex and then feel guilt both at the refusal and at the unoriginality of the desire, the undesire.

I know this doesn’t make me sound like the nicest wife. But back then I only thought he was late coming home from work. I didn’t know he would be gone so very long, that it would take him months and months to battle his way home, as if he were returning from the crusades and not the ever So Fresh candy company headquarters in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. It didn’t occur to me that nothing would ever be the same.

I forgot and didn’t remember for some time that I actually had spoken to him on the evening in question. My days had a habit of bleeding together, and it was often difficult for me to pinpoint whether we had indeed talked a few hours earlier or whether I was remembering the day before. But no, I think it was that night, that fateful night, when, believe it or not, it was raining ominously, a storm of Great Plains–style velocity, unleashed by restless nymphs polluting the city’s clouds, must have been, because there was such vindictiveness in the thunder rattling the kitchen window and spooking the imminently spookable baby so that she was wailing into my collarbone as I called Harry’s phone, wanting to know if (oh God, so typical) he could pick up some milk, a request that was met with irritation—he didn’t see why I couldn’t take care of these things without involving him. Betty sat on her booster seat, swinging her legs with a buoyancy that belied her scowl. I looked over just in time to see her open her mouth and hatch a mound of chewed grilled cheese onto the table.

“Jenny?” Harry answered, sounding confused. “Is everything okay?”

“Oh, sure. Just another day in paradise,” I said. Rose quieted, distracted by a hank of my hair.

“I miss you,” Harry said. “I miss the girls.” he sounded sad, or maybe just tired.

“Well, you’re in luck,” I said. “We’re all right here, and we’re taking visitors.”

“I wuv you, you wuv me,” Betty sang to her grilled cheese. The girl had a passion for dairy.

“Shh, baby, please,” I said to her, to Rose, to the thunder that grumbled a little farther in the distance now, to the world. “What, Harry? I’m losing you.”

“I’m going to stop for cigarettes on my way home,” it sounded like he said.

“So you’re not quitting, then,” I said, having forgotten all about the milk. I would remember only when I poured my dinner bowl of cheerios at eleven p.m., which I ended up eating with water, as I’d done more times than I cared to admit. Then he was gone. he would stay that way for a while.

When Harry left and I died it was the beginning of a desperately hot summer, a long sun-scorched stretch of days determined to silence doubters of global warming. The sidewalks of Brooklyn baked all around us, Prospect Park an expanse of brownish hay. I had these two babies, and people were always saying that my whole life was ahead of me—nosy grandmothers on the subway tugging at Rose’s bootie or boinging Betty’s curls, neighborhood eccentrics dispensing unsolicited advice from their bodega-front benches. I nodded and thanked them, or sometimes rolled my eyes.

My life with Harry had begun five years earlier, right around the time I started feeling my biological clock doing the My Cousin Vinny thing. I was working an exhausting job at a magazine that I was just starting to realize was not going anywhere: not the magazine, not the job, not me. I was officially Single and Loving It but in reality too tired by the end of the day to do anything more fabulous than drag myself home and watch fabulous amounts of television. (Romantic comedies counted as educational if they were in black and white. “We all go haywire at times, and if we don’t, maybe we ought to,” I’d mouth along with The Philadelphia Story.) I was too old to still have a roommate who called it “cooking” when she added pepper to her ramen; I was too young to retreat to the Midwest, capitulating to a life with many cats. It is annoying to find yourself living a cliché. It is doubly annoying to turn your life upside down only to settle into a fate even more banal than the one you were trying to avoid.

I met Harry on my thirtieth birthday, which I took as an omen. It was a few weeks after September 11, the bad one, and everyone in the city was feeling existentially wigged out, nostalgic for things we’d never noticed before. There was a barbecue on one of the last warm days of the year in someone’s closety backyard, morning glory strangling the brick. (“Those vines are lovely,” I told my host, trying to be friendly. She’d frowned, confessed, “They’re killing everything.”) I didn’t know these people well, but in those weeks everyone was overly solicitous and given to gallows humor, getting together to consume comfort food and avoid the subjects of death and patriotism in favor of those vaguer favorites, What Was So Great About our city and The Things That Really Mattered. It smelled like burning rubber in Brooklyn. Every night I dreamed I had children who got lost in my pockets. In other words, it was a dangerous time to meet someone new.

Over by the fence was Harry. He was wearing a leather jacket that was too warm for the weather, which I didn’t question at the time. His white shirt gaped open at the collar. I first noticed that triangle of neck. He stood talking to a trio of pretty blondes, and I couldn’t hear what he said but all at once, as if choreographed, they threw back their heads and laughed. Here was Harry in one of his—of course I couldn’t have known this then—manic highs, characterized by bravado and boisterousness, beloved by all. I thought (ha! ha!), There is an uncomplicated man. having split recently from a morose Bushwick-loft-inhabiting artist, I looked at Harry and my gut said, I know him. He is happy. He knows (he knocked back a swig of microbrewed beer, squinted at something over my head, the fire escape maybe) how to enjoy life. People are always saying to follow your gut. unfortunately, as it turns out, my gut is kind of stupid.

You know you’re in trouble when you refer to your own relationship as a “whirlwind romance.” Harry was fond of this phrase, which to me stank with a rot-sweet whiff of desperation. It’s true that it all happened very quickly. There was something deeply flattering about his passion for me, how he had to have me immediately and forever. his professions of affection were always larger than life. Two dozen white roses would greet me at work on a gloomy Monday, to the cooing envy of my coworkers. or I’d wake on a weekend to a homemade cappuccino, a new pair of golden gladiators (he’d pinpointed my weaknesses), and marching orders— “Get up, get up! We’re going on a helicopter tour of the city in an hour!” My therapist posited that Harry was the un My Father, what with his charisma and spontaneity and vague sheen of hazard.

She called him the Prince of Darkness charming. She called him James Dean Lite. I called her not My Therapist Anymore.

Within a year Harry and I were married (he wanted a Vegas wedding but worried it would kill his mother), and I’d traded my Xanax for prenatal omega-3s; a year after our wedding, Betty was born, and not quite two years after that, Rose. I’d been in college longer than I’d known my husband. I’d had a more protracted relationship with my academic adviser than with the father of my children, the man whose DNA I’d chosen to tangle with mine. And now here we were, piled into the crummy two-bedroom rental that was all we could afford in Park Slope, the yuppie neighborhood we clung to because I was afraid to bring my kids anywhere else in the city. or here I was, anyway. Who knew where Harry was.

When I awoke at three a.m., Rose howling wolfishly at a black-out-curtain-defying streetlamp, Betty standing in the hallway with her hands over her ears, and Harry still wasn’t there, it occurred to me to worry.

“Rosie, Rosie.” I launched myself from bed, the sheets withed around my legs, only to step squarely on the dog. oh. The dog. I was perpetually forgetting about the existence of Juniper, Harry’s scraggly, immortal mutt. Our mutt now, of course. had I taken her down to pee before bed? There were too many creatures’ bodily functions to keep track of. The dog looked up at me mournfully. I apologized, stumbled into our nubbin of a hallway. My legs were stiff, Frankensteiny. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d exercised in any way more significant than a walk pushing the stroller around the park, which I hoped counted for something. every day I promised myself I’d at least stretch out before bed, and every night I was twelve times too tired to even consider it. Anyway, “going to bed” was more like waiting for Rose to relent and then immediately applying myself to my mattress.

Rose had hiked her swaddle up around her neck in a sort of haute couture cowl and was inching across the crib like a demented caterpillar. She stopped howling when she saw me, grinned toothlessly. “All right,” I said. “You’re very charming.” I pulled the swaddling blanket off of her and lifted her out. Betty followed us back into my bed. I didn’t bother trying to stop her. I nestled Rose down in the center of the mattress, and she immediately started snorting with the pre-meal enthusiasm of a true Lipkin. I lay down beside her and offered her the boob with the less destroyed nipple. Betty lay down on the other side of Rose.

“Mommy, where Daddy?”

Rose popped off and craned her neck curiously toward Betty. “Sweetheart, please don’t distract the baby,” I said as dread gripped the top knob of my spine. Right. Where was Daddy? “Daddy’s, um, at work.”

Betty considered this. “Aren’t the lights off?”

Rose latched back on. I closed my eyes and allowed the pull of sleep to drag me under the surface. Sleep was like water, my brain thought, unoriginally. And as with a river, you never stepped into the same sleep twice, it was always a different texture somehow, there was a different current tonight, something roiling in the distance. What was this dream that I—

“Mommy.”

Without really waking up, I said, “Yes, honey, the lights are off. He has a flashlight.”

“Oh.”

Rose stopped nursing to stare up at Betty again. “Please, no talking, Betty,” I said, already mostly asleep. I was so tired that it hurt to wake up and fall back asleep. It was like how it used more energy to turn something off and on than it did to— But the thought stopped making sense as I thought it, breaking apart like bread dropped in water. I was dimly aware of Juniper jumping onto the bed and coiling up behind me. Being sandwiched between little bodies this way seemed cozy for about thirty seconds, until my leg wanted to stretch and couldn’t. It was another hot night, the mugginess unfazed by the air-conditioning unit lodged in the window, and here we were glued together by sweat and spit-up and dog hair. It was all very glamorous.

When I awoke again—five minutes later? an hour later?—Rose was snoozing with her mouth slightly open around my nipple, milk pooled on her tiny tongue. Betty and Juniper were curled together at the foot of the bed. The room was shadowy, lit by the streetlamp, the lights of night-owl neighbors, and the lights of early-rising neighbors, the hazy undark of the city at night. And really, now, where was Harry? Alarm rang through my limbs. I tried to temper it with some Vulcan logic, a technique I’d had to teach myself over and over, every night of my anxiety-laden first year of motherhood. No, no, he wasn’t dead in a ditch, that wouldn’t make any sense— he had said something . . . oh. He was going to stop and buy cigarettes. My brain, still half-sleeping like a dolphin’s, invented a story: he’d gotten a call from his alcoholic brother, Fred, he’d gone over to comfort him, he’d probably called my cell phone but I hadn’t gotten the call because the phone was loitering as usual somewhere deep within the diaper bag. he had ended up spending the night at Fred and Cynthia’s place near the office and had texted me so as not to wake up the girls in the miraculous case that one or both of them might be sleeping and when I saw him tomorrow, today, whenever, he would chastise me for not paying more attention to that particular hunk of electronics, which, it was true, I saw more as an emergency distraction device for Betty than as an actual tool for communication. Okay, that made sense. I was drifting back to sleep, so tired that my joints felt jumpy, my skin prickly. I couldn’t process whether I’d fallen asleep or else had slept for hours when there was Betty, patting my cheek.

I opened an eye. Rose sprawled out on her back, taking up more room than seemed geometrically possible for a person who weighed twelve pounds. It was a good thing Harry wasn’t here, actually. he hated when I let Rose sleep in our bed. “You made me buy that rocking chair for the nursery,” he’d say crossly. “I thought that was for nursing. It’s not safe to sleep with her in our bed.” I had a mature, reasonable response to this, being the excellent wife and mother that I was: I waited for him to turn around, and then I stuck my tongue out at the back of his head.

“Mommy. cookies?” Betty said experimentally. When I opened both eyes, I saw Juniper behind her, wagging her tail. When Juniper diagnosed me as awake-ish, she leaped up and started pacing around. “no and no,” I said to both of them. I probably fell back asleep. “MoMMY,” Betty said, patting my cheek harder. okay, hitting. Smacking my face. her hand was sticky, somehow, already. It was a lovely way to wake up. It wasn’t even light out yet. So, four forty-five, maybe? Juniper jumped up onto the bed, and Rose’s eyes popped open.

“Oh God,” I said. every morning I lay in bed thinking, I cannot possibly do this for one more day. Then I got up and did it for one more day, every day. All parents did, I told myself. My exhaustion was nothing special. And likewise, the moments in which I managed to cope in a halfway-decent way were not exactly the triumphs of maternal spirit I liked to pretend they were—more like basic competence. “Tell Daddy to take out Juniper,” I said.

Betty shook her head. “It’s too far.”

“What?” I lifted Rose, who belched loudly, looking surprised and pleased, a diminutive frat boy. I hadn’t burped her after her last dozy feeding. Another habit Harry hated.

“It’s too far. Daddy at work.” Oh God.

Thirty seconds later, I was wearing the same T-shirt and shorts I’d worn the day before; Rose and her diaper, transformed into an anvil of pee, were tucked into the sling; Betty was dressed in her pajamas, a tutu, and pink crocs her grandmother had gotten her expressly against our wishes; Juniper was harnessed into her leash. The whole happy family clambered out on the street. It was already about eighty degrees out, the world damp and steaming from the night’s rain. Day-old spit-up baked on my shirt, emitting a not entirely unpleasant bready odor. The sun was just beginning to rise, a bright sore bleeding over the park. Juniper peed in someone’s tree box, irrigating the “curb your dog” sign. Some days the city seemed almost supernaturally beautiful to me. Then there were days like this, when unforgiving light revealed rats performing acts of daytime derring-do, when everything in sight—a withered crone collecting cans, a paralyzed poodle dragging its hind legs on clanging wheels—looked damaged and deranged. It was garbage day, and stinking boulders of trash punctuated the sidewalk, which reminded me that I hadn’t taken down our recycling, a thought that filled me with despair. Betty toddled over to a rank pile, lifted up a diseased-looking teddy bear.

“No!” My voice startled Rose, who started to cry. It was easier to have sympathy for her, I found, than her sister, the toddler terror. Rosie couldn’t help it. She was a baby. her crying was uncomplicated. When Betty turned on the waterworks about one of her complex big-girl issues, like not getting an eighth Dora Band-Aid with which to decorate the dog, my skin curdled with irritation. But the baby I could deal with. I wasn’t that heartless. Usually.

“Shhh.” I swayed back and forth, extracted a pacifier from my pocket, and plugged her mouth. “Betty,” I said in the creepy-calm voice of fake parental patience. “Put that down right this second. Haven’t you ever read The Velveteen Rabbit? Scarlet fever! Bedbugs! Death!”

Betty knitted her brow.

“Drop it!” I said. Juniper stopped walking and looked at me. “not you.”

Betty released her treasure and poutily stuck her thumb in her mouth, the same thumb that, moments before, had been caressing the grimy toy’s eyeless socket. I closed my eyes. I’d been awake for two minutes and already felt overwhelmed by the length of the day ahead of me. I was officially over Harry’s disappearing act.

After Juniper had crapped a portentously watery crap—“What did you feed her?” I asked Betty, who pretended not to hear—we made our way around the block, dotted with trucks making their deafening morning deliveries to the corner store, the bakery, the bar. We trooped back upstairs. I finally changed Rose’s diaper. She grabbed at her crotch, grinning. We went into the main room, a relentlessly cluttered living room with an open kitchen, which had seemed like a good idea before we had kids. (“Perfect for entertaining!” Harry had said when I moved in. ha!) Betty sat cross-legged next to Juniper’s bowl, crunching.

“Oh dear God, what are you eating?” I said, depositing Rose into her bouncy seat. She promptly commenced howling. I picked her up despite the twinge between my shoulder blades. Betty put her hand back into Juniper’s food bowl and then froze. “Please do not eat dog food,” I said halfheartedly. I searched for my phone in the diaper bag, which seemed to contain everything we owned except diapers. I heard Betty crunching again. Juniper lapped at her water. Betty splashed in Juniper’s water. Rose snuffled around at my chest.

I only feel like crying because I am so tired, I told myself. It’s just that my eyes are all dried out.

No messages on my phone. No missed calls. Staying calm for the sake of the girls took all the energy I had. Which made me mad at Harry—what a jerk, to put me through this, and on such a hot day!—which made me immediately bite the inside of my cheek, hard, to punish myself for thinking such mean thoughts about someone who was maybe missing and in danger, or maybe just a huge fucking jerk, or maybe a huge fucking jerk who was nevertheless missing and in danger.

I called the office (neck prickling, lungs hollowing out), but no one answered. It was too early for anyone to be there in any normal sort of capacity. I pictured Harry asleep in his chair, head cocked back at a terrible angle. Okay. That would make a funny story someday: He was so tired, because you never slept, Rose, that one night he called to say he was on his way home and then promptly fell asleep in his chair. Cue Harry rubbing his neck ruefully, as if remembering the pain upon waking.

After all, he had been working a lot of late hours recently. I coped by changing into my pajamas at six p.m. every night and entertaining Betty and myself with elaborate, magical bedtime stories. He was the one missing out, I told myself, on these great bonding whatevers. After all the moments of parenting that, let’s be honest, really sucked, I lived for that twilight time when Betty snuggled up and prompted me, “Tell the fishy.” Then my oft-mocked master’s degree in Russian folklore (it sounded good at the time) got its moment to shine. “Yes,” I told Betty, working a comb through a post-bath snarl. “Once there was a fish-woman who lived at the bottom of the river. Every night she came out and danced in the meadow by the light of the moon.”

“At the park?” In Betty’s two-and-a-half-year-old mind (as in mine), all woodland adventures took place in Prospect Park.

“Yep. In the big field on the way to the carousel. And she would dance and dance. And sometimes climb a tree to brush her hair.”

“But only if her mama there.”

“Right. exactly. For safety. And so one night a man walked by . . .” Betty loved when these ghostly mermaids lured children with fruit snacks and Pirate’s Booty (hey, water spirits know what little kids like) and especially when they tickled men to death.

“But not wheely? She tickle him? But not wheely.”

“Well . . .” And then would come a tickle to end all tickles. The fish-woman stories had emerged from a fit of overparenting pique, when it was revealed that while babysitting one night Grandma Sylvia had exposed my daughter to Disney’s insipid Little Mermaid movie, with its teeny-bopper heroine. I’d relented on a lot of the perfect parenting ideals I’d had as a pre-parent, but this was too much. Mermaids had been my favorite figures in the Slavic fairytale pantheon, but it was because they were weird and powerful and a little scary, not because they looked great in clamshell bikinis. I admit that I tended to neglect the girls’ wardrobes—the cuteness quotient of their coats and dresses not nearly as high as one might expect from a pair of brownstone-Brooklyn babies—and things like clipping their nails and educating them about etiquette or God or non-microwaved cuisine. But simpering female role models and saccharine fairy stories? Come on. I left out the parts about mermaids being the unavenged spirits of suicides, forsaken girls, betrayed brides, unwed mothers-to-be. I figured that stuff could wait at least until pre-k.

Bedtime, sleep. I never would have thought these would someday be my obsessions, occupying such large portions of my daily consciousness. Starting at around four p.m.—the witching hour, when all down the street you could hear children begin to howl like werewolf cubs: my mind clicked with calculations: If everyone has dinner at four-thirty and then baths at five and then cartoons for Betty during Rosie’s bedtime and then assuming Rosie stays asleep for Betty’s bedtime, it’s possible I’ll get some time to sew before Harry gets home—and I’d start zooming toward bedtime in a maniacally unsoothing manner. The day ended definitively around dusk, and I never left the building after dark, but when your kids are little and wake up all night, you don’t ever get to clock out. I fantasized about a sexy eight-hour block of sleep. I salivated while telling Betty the part of Sleeping Beauty where the princess snoozes for a century.

Such luxurious lengths of sleep were not to be, not in this lifetime. I remember reading—it must have been soon after Betty’s birth, when peaceful nursing sessions mellowed into snuggling naps, when she would snooze on my chest while I browsed child development books (nowadays taking care of one baby sounded so easy, total amateur hour)—that infants need something like twenty hours of sleep a day, and that by four months old they will sleep through the night and take at least two naps a day. Which is how I knew that Rose was an exceptional human destined for great things. Think what an advantage it would be not to need sleep! This was what Harry and I had joked about before we were too tired to joke, when Rose was a squalling kitten balled up in blankets; we assumed this would all be an amusing anecdote someday. “We have here,” Harry announced into a rattle, “the parents of the youngest ever Nobel Prize winner, Rose Lipkin, who credits her extraordinary body of work to the extra hours she has to work, as she only sleeps for forty-five minutes a night. Now, tell us, Mr. and Mrs. Lipkin, did Rose ever sleep like a normal person?” And while the old me would have answered in some funny, snappy way, I’m sure, at the time I smiled wearily into Rose’s sweet-smelling scalp. Even Betty, who seemed to forget about her little sister’s existence for hours at a time, eventually commented on the situation, strutting into the room on chunky toddler legs and pointing and saying, “Baby needs night-night,” furrowing her brow in droll fury. Baby needed night-night, indeed.

As a result I was worn down by exhaustion, my edges rounded, like a giant ambulatory pebble. My brain didn’t work the way it once had. I felt at all times an instant away from tears. I expended a lot of energy I didn’t have convincing myself this was due to being tired. I didn’t want to believe that it was, as my well-meaning psychiatrist sister seemed to be hoping, postpartum depression, which she insisted on calling, awfully, “baby blues,” as if describing Frank Sinatra’s eyes and not a mental health condition. Still, Sarah had called once a week from Seattle since Rose’s birth, the way she had with Betty—making small talk before edging up to the subject and finally saying, her voice taking on the queasy sheen of sympathy, “So, how are you feeling? Any baby blues?”

I knew the answer she was looking for. “no,” I’d tell her almost apologetically. “Everything’s great. I’m just tired.”

“Okay,” she’d say, exhaling. “Okay, good. Because after Max was born, I was a wreck, and I didn’t feel like I could admit it to anyone—”

“I know, Sarah, I know.”

“I hate that you stopped seeing your therapist. I just want to make sure you have someone to talk to.”

“Yes. Thanks.”

“Okay. The only reason why I mention it is because for someone with your history of depression, it’s really common. And there’s nothing at all the matter with it. You need to know it doesn’t mean you’re a bad mother or that you don’t adore your kids. Really, did you know that twenty percent of woman experience postpartum depression, which can lead to postpartum psychosis—I mean, of course, not you—and especially women who have to go off their depression meds when they have their babies—”

“Yes, I know. Thanks a million for the cheery call, Sare, but I really have to go now. Time to drown the children in the bathtub.”

“That’s not funny. Jenny. Jenny? I do not like that joke. Jenny?”

Almost five months later, not much had changed except that Betty had taken more of an interest in Rose, so now neither of them slept. I would jerk awake in one odd situation or another—sitting in a kitchen chair while breast pump parts boiled, lying on the baby’s blanket surrounded by toys—to find Betty lugging Rose into her lap or the two of them huddled in Rose’s crib. “Betty! What did I tell you about the baby—gentle touches! Gentle touches!” I would cry ungently. Betty would stare up at me, green eyes wide, grubby fingers tangled in Rose’s scant strands of hair. or Rose would be about to relent, her eyes rolling shut, as Betty would toddle in with the toy Harry had been entrusted to hide, a plastic meteor pocked with buttons, each triggering a mechanized song more eardrumbusting than the last. Who in the world designed those things? The wardens at Guantánamo Bay?

It wasn’t only the sleeping, either. Rose constantly wanted to nurse, but would stay on the breast for about thirty seconds before absentmindedly pulling off. Whenever I put her down, she wailed. “She’s spoiled,” Harry’s mother, Sylvia, said. “You carry her around too much.” “Early teething,” said a lady on the train. “It’s reflux,” diagnosed my sister, Sarah, long-distance. The pediatrician shrugged, not unsympathetically. “She’s a baby,” he said. “They cry.” So you couldn’t really blame Harry when he started working later and later into the night. He swore up and down it had nothing to do with me or the girls, that he wanted to be home to help me but things were not looking ever so good at ever So Fresh and he was needed at the office. “Never go into business with your family,” he grimly told Betty one morning as she fed cheerios to her plastic cash register. She looked at him for a long moment before offering a delicious choking hazard to Rose, who was doing her baby cobra pose on the floor nearby. “Nononono!” We rushed forward in unison. (It was our fault, my mother-in-law informed us, that “no” was Betty’s favorite word. Before I’d had kids, I’d never known this was a thing, how you weren’t supposed to use the word “no.” I still didn’t get it. What else could we say to her as she, for example, lurched toward the busy avenue we lived on? Un-yes?)

What with the economy, and the recession, and the “crazy food faddists” (according to Sylvia, as if believing candy to be unhealthful were some wrongheaded new idea), sales were down at ever So Fresh. Harry’s year-end bonus had been a bulk-size bag of stale fruit gels, disgusting enough when new and, by the time we encountered them, chewy as sugar-shellacked beef jerky. his brother was busy divorcing his second wife, one of those gently psychotic types who enjoyed visiting Disney World despite being a childless adult, and baby-talked to her houseplants. Therefore, Harry was needed at the office later and later into the night, each night, and sometimes on weekends. Allegedly.

The morning after the epic cigarette run: “You’re sure it’s only . . . work?” My friend Laura puckered her forehead. She knew Harry was working crazy hours, but I’d left out for now the part about how he’d never come home last night. We’d been putting in extra-long hours of our own at the playground. Laura’s husband worked a lot, too. Then again, Laura’s husband was a surgeon. Their apartment could have fit four of ours inside, and contained within its original-pre-war-detail-adorned depths a washer, dryer, and dishwasher, oh whirring objects of my most fervent desire.

Betty and Laura’s daughter, Emma, busied themselves palpating an anthill with bendy straws. I squinted at them, pretending to watch them play instead of mentally critiquing the cute-but-slightly-misaligned sailor dress I’d made for Betty. I would never admit to being happy to have girls strictly for the wardrobe options, but I will say that as an amateur seamstress, jacked cotton dresses for unpicky models were sort of my specialty. Betty offered Emma a wood chip, which she sucked on tentatively. I took in a breath to tell Laura about the woodsy snack and then didn’t, for some reason.

I stood near the fence, swaying back and forth with Rose sleeping fitfully in her sling. She seemed determined to sleep only when the nap could be of no use to me. I felt the sleepy weight of her body, not looking at her, and for a moment imagined she’d been replaced with a Tereshichka-like wooden block. checked. Nope, just a regular human, non-imp-from-a-folktale baby. Phew. I wondered if all adults had similar moments of panic caused purely by overactive imaginations. It seemed like a question you couldn’t ask without seeming, you know, crazy.

“I mean,” Laura said, “Harry’s a great guy—I’m sure he wouldn’t— but—”

“Oh, please,” I said. My bravado sounded forced even to me. I felt close to tears because I was so tired, I told myself as usual, just because I was tired. “Harry hates everyone. He doesn’t have any friends. How on earth would he have a girlfriend?”

Laura smiled, sort of. We both knew this wasn’t remotely true. He was moody at home with me, but out in public Harry was the life of the party, gregarious and large-hearted. Somehow, everywhere we went, people knew his name.

“They’re really super busy at ever So Fresh,” I added. Now Betty was sampling the wood chips. I again took a breath and then stopped. I had learned to conserve my energy; I only had so much left, and the day was long. Besides, Betty was building immunities. I was pretty sure I’d read that somewhere. A childhood spent nibbling Brooklyn dirt could only result in an iron stomach, right? I pictured a twenty-year-old backpacking Betty impressing her hostel-mates by devouring street food in Indonesia. You’re welcome, grown-up Betty, I thought. My mother had encouraged quiet play indoors and endless hours of television, had suffered a phobia of dirt so debilitating that I’d never so much as seen a sandbox until I had kids of my own, had taught her girls that trying anything new would bring only trauma. I did what I could to escape her with every parenting move I made. “Girls!” Laura interrupted. “no eating wood chips!” She turned back to me. In her mirrored sunglasses, I looked overly round and worried. I focused on relaxing my brow and applying a small smile. “Didn’t you say business wasn’t good there, though?” Laura said. I loved her, I did, but sometimes her attention to detail was exhausting. I closed my eyes and jolted them open. Was it possible to sleep standing up? If I fell asleep standing up, would I fall down? When I fell down, would I stay asleep?

“Well, that’s why he’s so busy,” I said, starting to feel confused. “Hmm. Okay,” said Laura, frowning into the distance. “Emma! No!” she called toward the girls, who looked back at us and retreated farther into the dusky distance beneath the slide. It was one of the curious qualities of our friendship that Laura and I never looked each other in the eye as we spoke. Maybe this was how it was with mothers of small children. When I thought about it, I wasn’t exactly sure what Laura looked like, though I knew Emma by heart. Laura and I sat side by side, quietly heckling the park populace like a non-Muppet Statler and Waldorf. “Is he trying to drum up new business? Or something like that?”

“Something like that, yes,” I said. “And in the meantime, I get the shitty parts of being a single mother without any of the fun. Like dating. Maybe I should start dating.”

“I hear it’s not as fun as we remember it.”

“I don’t remember it being all that much fun, so I probably wouldn’t be disappointed.”

“I just— I would just watch him, you know? Remember what happened to Jeanie and Jon, is all.”

“Geez, Laura. You’re a real ray of sunshine.” These Park Slopeians we vaguely knew had been the talk of the playground for a few weeks, when Jon absconded with the nanny and Jeanie had to sell their condo at a huge loss. I hardly saw the parallel. If there was a lesson to be learned from them, it was that, hello, when hiring live-in nannies, you went for the overweight grandmotherly type, not the hot recent college grad with an education degree. I mean, didn’t everyone already know that? I’d never be able to afford a nanny anyway, let alone a hot one.

Laura didn’t respond for so long that I finally looked up, and— oh! Cute Dad. She nudged me. “Stop that,” I said.

Sam held the distinction of being the least uncute stay-at-home father we knew, and accordingly had been mythologized as cute Dad. I think we just needed a cute Dad in our lives. We saw him nearly every day. We’d once followed him around the entire loop of the park, like giddy preteens. our shared crush seemed totally innocent to us, but I admit it probably would have struck our husbands as a little creepy, possibly predatory, had they known. “Shh!” Laura giggled. cute Dad flashed his famous smile as he fast-walked past, trailing his kids on their scooters.

“You’re terrible,” I told Laura as we watched him disappear into the woods. “The timing of this is highly inappropriate.”

“Timing of what? I’m just waving hello to a neighbor.”

“And blushing.” “I am not.”

But she was. I mean, we both were.

When Harry hadn’t shown up or answered his phone by ten a.m., I called Sylvia at her desk, across the office from Harry’s. I could practically see her frowning at Harry’s empty desk, then picking up her phone gingerly between her flawlessly manicured fingertips. She kept a pencil near the phone for dialing, one of many household items that had been transformed into prosthetics to accommodate her metallic magenta talons.

“Ever So Fresh,” she droned, the antithesis of fresh. They had to be the last place of business in new York, perhaps the world, to not have caller ID. or a receptionist. Sometimes if she was feeling playful, Sylvia imitated a dial-by-name directory, but that was about as technologically savvy as they got. They didn’t have a website, not a single sad page with their contact information.

“Sylvia,” I said. My voice cracked unexpectedly. I was not used to sharing a great deal of emotion with my friendly but brittle mother-in-law, and here I was, wet-faced, snuffle-nosed. Betty stopped running a crayon over Juniper’s back and stared at me. Rose grinned toothlessly from her swing, a plastic contraption that took up half our living room.

“Hello? Hello?” I could hear another phone ringing in the background. Was someone calling Harry? The police, having found his wallet floating in the Hudson? A not-so-secret secret girlfriend? I tried to pull myself together, pressing at my eyes with my fingertips. “Sylvia, it’s me, Jenny.”

“Hi, dear. What’s the matter?” It was difficult to speak.

“Honey, let me put you on hold.” on hold! I sat there, listening to the hold music—an ancient assortment of Rat Pack crooners Harry’s father had chosen before he died, nearly three years earlier—feeling more and more depressed. I dabbed my eyes with a burp cloth that smelled of sour milk. “Mommy?” Betty said hesitantly. I shook my head, voiceless. Then Sylvia was back. The other phone had stopped ringing.

“Is it so bad having Harry home for the day?” Sylvia had the lox-y voice of a lifelong smoker, which was enough to annoy me on a day like today: the unhealthy rasp of her stretched-thin voice.

“Home? Sylvia, I haven’t seen Harry since yesterday morning.” There was a pause. “You mean he’s not home sick?” It was amazing how we’d all figured out ways to explain it—explanations that demanded so much work on our parts! The mental calisthenics! I heard a muffled sound, as if Sylvia had placed a hand over the receiver and started talking to someone else.

“I was hoping he’d—I don’t know—fallen asleep at the office. And forgotten to call this morning. I guess. or something.” It sounded incredibly stupid when I said it out loud.

“Wait, what? Jenny. Have you tried his cell?”

“Of course. It goes straight to voice mail.”

“Why didn’t you call earlier? He could be bleeding to death on a subway platform somewhere!” I had always thought Sylvia was given to histrionics until Betty was born. Then I realized there was nothing crazy about believing your constant vigilance to be the only buffer between your child and the abyss, about feeling sure that you could keep your baby safe by sheer force of anxiety. “Have you called the police?” Hearing her say this made it sink in. Something had gone very wrong with my husband. People didn’t just not come home and then not call. Well, okay, Harry did, now and then. But it wasn’t something you got used to easily. “Should I call the police? Jenny? Hello?”

“I don’t know. What if he’s—you know. In Atlantic city or something.”

A chilly pause. In my panic, I had broken the unspoken Lipkin rule: You don’t talk about the Lipkins. Even to the Lipkins. Especially to the Lipkins. You don’t talk about Fred’s drinking problem. You don’t talk about the paterfamilias’s obesity, and when he dies of a heart attack, you act like no one ever saw it coming. You don’t talk about Harry’s obsession with gambling, even when it’s painfully obvious, even when he’s your own husband and it’s your money being frittered away on poker nights and Vegas weekends. It was all very suppressed, very 1950s. Sylvia wasn’t going to rescue me, either, or heaven forbid admit that I sort of had a point. That it had sort of happened before. Finally, I said, “Is Fred there? has he heard from Harry?”

“He’s here. He doesn’t know anything. We assumed Harry was home sick, or that maybe he’d taken the day to spend with the family. He’s been so upset about everything lately, and—”

“About what?” I interrupted.

Sylvia paused. Was it a knowing, considered pause? Or the normal pause of the interrupted? A paranoid queasiness percolated in my gut. “I’m sure he’s told you business is bad. And I know you kids are looking to find a bigger place, and it’s stressing him out, and that you, you know”—and oh, duh, I got it—“you haven’t been feeling well . . .”

“All right,” I said. “I didn’t know if there was something else. I’m feeling fine, by the way.”

“Of course you are, dear.”

“I’m just tired. You know? Rose doesn’t sleep. It’s tiring. Betty, no! Do not feed boogers to the baby!” I said it a little too loud and right into the phone.

Sylvia paused. “Dear, why don’t I come over.”

I looked around the apartment. This was not one of those “oh, ha, sorry it’s such a mess” moments. It was dangerously messy. It was call-child-services, doubt-the-mental-health-of-the-mother messy. It was TLc-reality-programming messy. We cohabited with dust bunnies I knew by name, tiles that were actually milk spills. The windowsills were furzed with old-building lead dust. I wouldn’t have been surprised to find the jumbled hall closet mobbed by mischievous gnomes. Moments earlier Betty had been sitting on the kitchen floor playing with “ladybugs,” a friendly assortment of crumbs and shed paint chips.

“No, no,” I said too quickly. A weepy weight welled in my throat. “No, thank you. We have a ton to do today. But—keep me posted.”

“If we haven’t heard from him by tomorrow, I’m calling the police,” said Sylvia. This was a small victory: her all but admitting that Harry might have gone off to gamble, that there might be a reasonable, unreasonable explanation for everything.

“All right,” I said.

“You don’t think he might be—”

I pretended not to hear and hung up the phone. When I turned around, Betty’s face was screwed up bulldoggishly.

“Wanttoo talk to Grandma!” she wailed.

“No, you don’t,” I said. “Trust me.”

Getting to know Harry after we’d married was interesting, I’ll give it that. The gambling problem, for example. Who knew there was such a thing? When we were first together, he’d taken me to hipster poker nights in smoky speakeasies, tucked into warehouse warrens or behind doors hidden in brownstone bookcases. I loved the whole secret-supper-club phenomenon for the retro charm, the sense of in-crowd illicitness, and most of all, for the excuse it gave me to wear high heels too impractical for real life. Besides, Harry looked so cute leaning over in his pressed dress shirt, his hair slicked back like a movie gangster’s, calling someone’s bluff. I was enjoying myself, infatuated with being infatuated with him. I didn’t realize that for Harry, these nights were about the shuffle of cards, the plunking down of dollars. Which is to say, I didn’t think about the poker part of things much at all.

Once we were married, I would wake up in the middle of the night and wander into the living room to find him up in front of the computer, his face flickering in the light of an online poker site. I never suspected that this was his intermediary fix, like a junkie trying to take the edge off with drink. When I was eight months pregnant with Betty, he disappeared one Friday, just never got to work, without calling or answering his phone or responding to the dozen texts I sent. I dedicated that Saturday to calling every hospital in new York city, spent Sunday-brunch time hysterically camped out at my local police precinct, scored an exclusive tour of the kings county morgue to view a baseball team’s worth of frozen white men. needless to say, when he reappeared, rumpled but triumphant, in the meager light of Monday morning (having weekended in Atlantic city and doubled the money we’d received as wedding gifts and had been saving as a down payment for something or other), I was a hormonal mess—relieved, furious, exhausted, overjoyed, threatening murder and/or divorce. “I looked at dead people!” I’d screamed. “You made me look at dead people!” The fight that ensued caused both our upstairs and downstairs neighbors to call 311 on us. (No one thought to knock on the door to make sure the shattering plates weren’t meeting skin—thanks, Brooklyn!) Still. You wouldn’t think this of yourself—I know I didn’t—but it so happens that it’s easier to forgive when your wrongdoer (contrite, begging your pardon, crying for the first time in your presence) has suddenly become twenty thousand dollars richer and apologizes with a weekend at a Soho spa. It sounds shallow, I know, but hold judgment until you’ve had a Thai herbal rub applied to your extremely pregnant belly.

So here was this man I’d married, revealing himself to me as we formed our family together. A gambling problem! Either he was really good at hiding it or my powers of denial were superhero strength, because by the time I understood the severity of his sickness, our lives were so entangled that it became my problem, too. I remember wishing (and then immediately taking it back, pretending not to have thought it) that he could have had a health problem instead—something I could feel sorry for him about, something we could try to survive together. The gambling thing was embarrassing. It was something I’d never heard of, which made it feel somehow weirder than something like plain old alcoholism.

Once, before I knew better, I mentioned it to his mother. She was so offended, I feared I’d caused irreparable damage to my standing among the Lipkins. Which I had. I’d been unintentionally offending my in-laws ever since I’d arrived on the scene and their mistrust of me—an overeducated gentile from Minnesota—metastasized when I refused the ridiculous job Sylvia offered me when Harry and I were first married.

The thing was, I actually loved my job as an editor at a home decor magazine in Midtown. What was so confusing was that I’d thought it was something Harry liked about me—that I had a career, that I had ambitions, that I was, modesty aside, a really good editor. I worked long hours, sure, but I was happy there in my tweed skirt, biting a pencil (a prop, as I typed away) in the buzz and flicker of my cubicle at nine p.m., ordering in sushi on the company card and trying to sift the various pieces of interviews and research and background material into a story that read smoothly, that illuminated the photography, that expressed its meaning and humor and good taste in a breezy but not too breezy manner, that people would read, admittedly, on the toilet (but that was hardly the point, now, was it?).

My job held no allure for the Lipkins. They’d never heard of my magazine and had only a fuzzy concept of what it was I did. (I once overheard Sylvia at a family Passover seder describe me as a “sort of a newspaper columnist.”) So when we’d been married a month, they banded together, decided that I would be happier writing advertising copy, managing contracts, and answering phones at ever So Fresh. It had been a whole thing. I was horrified at the thought and even more horrified that Harry, the stranger I had married, would think I would want to do such a thing. I loved my job. I complained about it constantly, but there was no denying the thrill of excitement I got every time I walked into the cavernous lobby of my fancy building near Times Square. I spent a lot of time getting dressed in the morning, blow-drying my hair, de-scuffing my oversize, overpriced handbag, selecting my shoes.

Sometimes I think what I liked most about working was the shoes. I had always been on the shrimpy end of the spectrum and, in adulthood, had topped out at barely five feet tall on tiptoes, with a size-four foot. In New York this was weird enough, but back home in Minnesota, land of big-boned Scandinavians, it had been downright freakish. My whole life, large-limbed friends had gasped at my feet and told me how lucky I was, but in truth there is nothing so great about having to special-order every single pair of shoes you own. As a result, my shoes were stupidly expensive and carefully chosen. A cobbler’s sample here, a ballet slipper there, perhaps in a pinch a child’s extra-large patent-leather party shoe. Working had given me an excuse to collect more variety in footwear than I’d ever had in my life. I’d spring out of the shower and pace in front of my tiny closet with its tidy racks of shoes. The evilly pretty slingbacks (Marni, snakeskin) I blew my first paycheck on? The buttery calf-skin boot brought back from a friend visiting Japan (that mythical land where an elf like me wore a medium)? The Manolo Blahnik d’orsays (feathered, like the bird-human hybrid feet of a sirin) presented by Harry, flying high from a big win at poker? I had shoes no one back home had heard of. I minced through the city like a salaried Cinderella.

Harry found it all faintly ridiculous. It was all faintly ridiculous, but I didn’t care. I’d call and apologize for missing dinner when I had a housewares store opening or cocktail party to go to (in the stalky, sparkly stilettos I kept stowed under my desk) or when I was just mooning around the office, waiting to sign off on a proof during the crazy monthly close. I would take home each issue as soon as the glossy tablets arrived, and show Harry—“This is the architect profile I edited, God, that guy was a douchebag”—and he would flip through it with very mild interest.

One night—I was drunk, admittedly, from too much champagne at a going-away party for a coworker—Harry finally said, “It’s just that you’re so smart, Jenny. You should be writing for The New Yorker or working on a book or something.” I’d reeled. “What’s that supposed to mean?” It stung because I knew the magazine was idiotic, I knew it took over my life in an idiotic way, and also because it implied that I had the ultimate choice in the matter, as if I could say, Hey, ya know, that sounds great, I think I’ll start as the features editors of Time next week! I busted my hump all month, endured tirades from the fascist editor in chief, worked and reworked stories and spreads endlessly, all for a wage slightly higher than a waitress’s and far less than a stripper’s. But I was a good editor. I knew I was a good editor. And I’d had the job (complete with business cards and a line on the masthead) only a few years, having suffered though several horrid assistant positions to get to where I was. I certainly didn’t need Harry saying, “There’s hardly any words in it.” I knew that. Obviously, I knew that.

The magazine folded while I was on maternity leave with Betty. I never got to clear off my desk. It was what was happening. even my bookish friends took to saying things like “Well, we all know print’s dead!” and then laughing nervously, like they’d gotten away with some outrageous joke. So in that way, the working/not-working conundrum decided itself for me, and for a while things were fine. I was home with the girls, which was its own kind of interesting. Though I could never say it to Harry, there was so much he missed during the day. I knew my babies. I knew every inch of them, every predilection, every habit, every experience they’d ever had. I saw Betty’s giddy joy when she took her first drunken steps; I memorized Rose’s constellation of recurring diaper rash.

Still, it took a leap of faith not to think about what I would end up doing once they went off to school—getting into, one prayed, G&T, which in our strange new world meant not an alcoholic beverage but the much less refreshing Gifted & Talented public school program. When I did think about my future, I became immediately nauseated, headachey, heavy with fatigue. I was either harboring some serious self-doubt or had hepatitis B. It was the same life crisis everyone I knew was having, the same conversation all Park Slope moms shared around the swing set. But my production company! My teaching degree! My doctorate! Blah, blah. My work had been kind of my deal. It was who I was. And now? I dreaded meeting new people and facing the inevitable What Do You Do?: “Oh, this,” I would say sheepishly, gesturing toward my sweaty offspring. Or else: “nothing.” nothing. How I would have loved a day to do nothing, to lie perfectly still on the couch and stare at the television.

I would have to do something eventually—we couldn’t afford for me not to be working, not financially and certainly not mental-healthily—but all my work up until now had earned me a whole lot of experience in a field that barely existed anymore, that might have vanished by the time my kids were in school. Well, I’d gotten that sweet master’s in Russian folklore that I was still paying for, from the small liberal arts college in St. Paul where I’d puttered around before gathering up the nerve to move to new York. So! That was sure to come in handy amid recession and growing unemployment.

In the meantime, I stayed at home with the girls and sewed and baked cookies (and then, unfortunately, ate the cookies) and went to a lot of sing-alongs and story times. It was a pleasant enough life crisis. I admit there were plenty of times when I was walking with the girls at seven a.m., trying to convince Rose to take a morning nap because she’d already been up for hours, and I’d see women going to work, hurrying toward the subway in skirts and heels, and I’d feel a pang of—something. At least, as Sylvia was always reminding me in a tone I knew was meant to be conciliatory but which struck me as foreboding, there was always a place for me at ever So Fresh. Jesus. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted out of life, or even who I was, but one thing I did know was that I didn’t want to end up in that stuffy Bay Ridge office with my in-laws, selling jelly rings in bulk to grocery stores and bars. And they sensed it. The Lipkins knew. They knew me for the superficial snob that I was.

Meanwhile, my own family could not have been farther away while on the same continent—my pathologically busy sister, Sarah, all the way in Seattle, my travel-averse parents marooned in the Midwest. every time I spoke with my mother, she said something like “Gosh, it sure does kill me to be so far from those sweet grandbabies of mine,” so I’d been calling her less and less frequently to avoid the guilt trip. My pre-baby friends in new York were magazine people who had visited with flowers and impractical gifts—dry-clean-only onesies that buttoned up the back, gorgeous picture books for clean-fingered six-year-olds—when Betty was born, and most of whom I hadn’t seen since. I didn’t have a job or my own money; I couldn’t see past my own nose, really. And now I was alone with a toddler and a colicky infant, and it was hot, and I was tired, and Harry was gone.


Excerpted from The Mermaid of Brooklyn by Amy Shearn. Copyright © 2014 by Amy Shearn.
First published 2013 by Touchstone, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., USA
Th is edition published 2013 by Macmillan, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Entry Island by Peter May – Extract

Entry Island

PROLOGUE

It is evident from the way the stones are set into the slope of the hill that industrious hands once toiled to make this pathway. It is overgrown now, the shallow impression of a ditch on one side. He makes his way carefully down towards the remains of the village, pursued by the oddest sense of treading in his own footsteps. And yet he has never been here.

The silhouette of a broken-down drystone wall runs along the contour of the treeless hill above him. Beyond it, he knows, a crescent of silver sand curls away towards the cemetery and the standing stones on the rise. Below him, the footings of blackhouses are barely visible among the peaty soil and the spikes of tall grasses that bend and bow in the wind. The last evidence of walls that once sheltered the families who lived and died here.

He follows  the path  between them,  down towards  the shingle shore where a ragged line of roughly hewn stones vanishes into waves that cast their spume upon the pebbles, frothing and spitting. They are all that remain of some long-forgotten attempt to build a jetty.

There were, perhaps, ten or twelve blackhouses here once. Thatched roofs curved over thick stone walls, leaking peat smoke through cracks and crevices to be whipped away on the icy edge of winter gales. In the heart of the village, he stops and pictures the spot where old Calum lay bleeding, his skull split open, all of his years and heroism erased by a single blow. He crouches down to touch the earth, and in doing so feels a direct connection with history, communing with ghosts, a ghost himself haunting his own past. And yet not his past.

He closes his eyes and imagines how it was, how it felt, knowing that this is where it all began, in another age, in someone else’s life.

CHAPTER  ONE

The front door of the summerhouse opened straight into the living room through a fly-screen door off the porch. It was a large room occupying most of the downstairs footprint of a house that the murdered man used for guests who never came.

A narrow corridor at the bottom of the staircase ran off to a bathroom and a small bedroom at the back of the property. There was an open fireplace with a stone surround. The furniture was dark and heavy, and took up most of the floor space. Sime thought that although the house itself had been remodelled, this must still be the original furniture. It felt like stepping back in time. Generous old armchairs with antimacassars, worn rugs strewn across uneven but freshly varnished floorboards. Heavy-framed oil paintings on the walls, and every available space cluttered with ornaments and framed family photos. It even smelled old in here, and made him think of his grandmother’s house in Scotstown.

Blanc fed cable off into the back bedroom where he would set up his monitors, and Sime lined up two cameras on tripods to focus on the armchair facing the window, where the newly widowed woman would be well lit. He set his own chair with its back to the window so that his face would be obscured to her, but every micro sign to flit across her face would be evident to him.

He heard floorboards creaking overhead and turned towards the staircase as a policewoman came down into the light. She looked bewildered. ‘What’s going on?’

Sime told her they were setting up for the interview. ‘I understand she’s upstairs,’ he said. The officer nodded. ‘Send her down, then.’

He stood by the window for a moment, holding the net curtain aside, and remembered the words of the sergeant enquêteur who had met them at the island’s only harbour. Looks like it was her that did it. Sunlight caught his face so that it was reflected in the glass, and he saw his familiar lean features beneath their tumble of thick blonde curls. He saw the fatigue in his eyes, and the shadows that hollowed his cheeks, and he immediately jumped focus to gaze out across the ocean. The longer grass along the cliff’s edge was dipping and diving in the wind now, white-tops blowing across the gulf from the south-west, and in the distance he saw an ominous bank of dark cloud bubbling up on the horizon.

The creak of the stairs brought his head around, and for a moment that seemed like an eternity his world stopped.

She stood on the bottom step, her dark hair drawn back from the delicate structure of her face. Pale skin stained by dried blood. Her bloodied nightdress was partially covered by a blanket draped around her shoulders. He could see that she was tall and holding herself erect as if it were a matter of pride not to be cowed by her circumstance.

Her eyes were a dark, crystal-cut blue with darker rings around the pupils. Sad eyes filled with tragedy. He could see the shadows of sleeplessness smudged beneath them as if someone had drawn charcoal-stained thumbs across the skin.

He heard the slow tick, tick of an old pendulum clock on the mantel, and saw motes of dust suspended in the light that slanted through the windows. He saw her lips move, but there was no sound. They moved again in silence, forming words he couldn’t hear, until he became aware suddenly of the irritation in her voice. ‘Hello? Is there anyone home?’ And it was as if someone had released the pause button and his world wound back up to speed. But the confusion remained.

He said, ‘I’m sorry. You are . . . ?’

He saw her consternation now. ‘Kirsty Cowell. They said you wanted to interview me.’

And out of his turmoil he heard himself saying, ‘I know you.’

She frowned. ‘I don’t think so.’

But he knew he did. Not where, or how, or when. But with an absolute certainty. And that feeling he had experienced on the plane returned to almost overwhelm him.

CHAPTER  TWO

I

Hard to believe that just a few hours ago he had been lying in his own bed over a thousand kilometres away in Montreal, arms and legs tangled among the sheets, sweating where they covered him, freezing where they did not. His eyes then had been filled with sand, and his throat so dry he could barely swallow.

During the long night he had lost count of the number of times he had glanced at the digital display on his bedside clock. It was foolish, he knew. When sleep would not come, time crawled with the  unerring pace of a  giant tortoise. Watching its painful passage only increased the frustration and reduced the odds of sleep even further. The faintest of headaches lay just behind his eyes as it did every night, increasing in its intensity towards morning and the painkiller that would fizz furiously in his glass when it was time at last to rise.

Rolling over on to his right side he had felt the empty space beside him like a rebuke. A constant reminder of failure.

A cold emptiness where once there had been warmth. He could have spread himself across the bed, warming it from the heat of his own body, but he felt trapped on the side where he had so often lain in simmering silence after one of their fights. Fights, it had always seemed to him, that he never started. And  yet  through  all  the  sleepless  hours of these last weeks, he had begun to doubt even  that. Harsh words endlessly replayed to fill the slow, dark passing of time.

Finally, at the very moment he had felt himself slipping off into darkness, the trilling of his cellphone on the bedside table had startled him awake. Had he really drifted off? He sat bolt upright and glanced at the clock, his heart pounding, but it was still just a little after three. He fumbled for the light switch, and blinking in the sudden glare of the lamp grabbed the phone.

From his riverside apartment in St Lambert, it could take anything up to an hour and a half during rush hour to cross the Pont Jacques Cartier on to the island that was Montreal City. But at this hour the huge span of arcing girders that straddled the Île Sainte Hélène fed only a trickle of traffic across the slow-moving water of the St Lawrence River.

As the lights of empty tower blocks rose up around him, he swung on to the off-ramp and down to Avenue de Lorimier before turning north-east on Rue Ontario, the dark silhouette of Mount Royal itself dominating the skyline in his rear mirror. The drive to 1701 Rue Parthenais took less than twenty minutes.

The Sûreté de Police was housed in a thirteen-storey tower block on the east side of the street with views out towards the bridge, the TV station and the mountain. Sime took the elevator up to the Division des enquêtes sur les crimes contre la personne on the fourth floor. It never failed to amuse him how the French language needed nine words where one in English would do. Homicide, the Americans would have said.

Capitaine Michel McIvir was returning to his office with a coffee, and Sime fell in beside him as he walked along the corridor past framed black-and-white photographs of crime scene investigations from the fifties and sixties. McIvir was barely forty, just a handful of years older than Sime, but wore an air of authority that Sime knew would never be a fit for him. The capitaine glanced at his sergeant enquêteur with shrewd eyes.

‘You look like shit.’

Sime grimaced. ‘That makes me feel so much better.’

‘Still not sleeping?’

Sime shrugged, reluctant to admit the extent of his problem. ‘Off and on.’ And he quickly changed the subject. ‘So why am I here?’

‘There’s been a murder on the Magdalen Islands, out in the Gulf of St Lawrence.’ He called them by their French name, Les Îles de la Madeleine. ‘The first in living memory. I’m sending an initial team of eight.’

‘But why me? I’m not on the rota.’

‘The murder took place on l’Île d’entrée, Sime. Better known to its inhabitants as Entry Island. The Madelinots are French-speaking for the most part, but on Entry they speak only English.’

Sime nodded, understanding now.

‘I’ve got a light aircraft standing by at St Hubert airfield. It’ll take about three hours to get out to the islands. I want you to lead interrogations. Thomas Blanc will monitor. Lieutenant Crozes is your team leader, Sergeant Superviseur Lapointe on admin and logistics.’ He hesitated, uncharacteristically. It did not go unnoticed by Sime.

‘And the crime scene investigator?’ He posed it as a question, but already knew the answer.

McIvir set his mouth in a stubborn line. ‘Marie-Ange.’

II

The thirteen-seater King Air B100 had been in the air for over two and a half hours. During that time barely a handful of words had passed among the eight-officer team being sent to investigate the Entry Island murder.

Sime sat on his own up front, acutely aware of everything that set him apart from his colleagues. He was not an habitual member of their team. He had only been attached because of his linguistic background. The others were all French in origin. Each spoke English, to a greater or lesser extent, but none was fluent. Sime’s heritage was Scottish. His ancestors had arrived speaking Gaelic. Within a couple of generations the language of home had all but died out, to be replaced by English. Then in the 1970s the government of Quebec had made French the official language, and  in  a mass exodus half a million English-speakers had abandoned the province.

But Sime’s father had refused to go. His great-great-grandparents, he said, had carved out a place for themselves in this land, and he was damned if he would be forced off it. And so the Mackenzie family had stayed, adapting to the new francophone world, but holding on to their own language and traditions in the home. Sime supposed he had much to thank him for. He was equally at home with French or English. But right now, aboard this flight to investigate a murder on a distant archipelago, it was what set him apart. The thing he had always wanted to avoid.

He glanced from the window and saw the first light in the sky to the east. Below them he could see only ocean. They had left the tree-covered Gaspé Peninsula behind them some time ago.

The stooped figure of Sergeant Superviseur Jacques Lapointe emerged from the tiny cockpit clutching a sheaf of papers. He was the man who would facilitate everything. Accommodation, transport, all their technical requirements. And it was Lapointe who would accompany the body of the victim back to Montreal for autopsy in the basement of 1701 Rue

Parthenais. He was an older man, somewhere in his mid-fifties, with big-knuckled arthritic hands and a spiky black moustache shot through with silver.

‘Okay.’ He raised his voice to be heard above the roar of the

engines. ‘I’ve booked us into the Auberge Madeli on the Île du Cap aux Meules. That’s the main administrative island, and it’s from there that the ferry leaves for Entry. About an hour for the crossing.’ He consulted his notes. ‘The airport’s on Havre aux Maisons, linked to Cap aux Meules by bridge, apparently. Anyway, the local cops’ll meet us there with a minibus, and it looks like we’ll be just in time to catch the first ferry of the day.’

‘You mean they’d have sailed without us?’ Lieutenant Daniel Crozes raised an eyebrow. The team leader was almost the same age as Sime, but a little taller and possessed of dark good looks. Somehow he always managed to maintain a tan. Quite a feat during the long, cold Quebecois winters. Sime was never quite sure if it derived from a bottle or a sunbed.

‘Not on your life!’ Lapointe grinned. ‘It’s the only way of getting a vehicle over there. I told them I’d sink the fucking thing if they didn’t hold it for us.’ He inclined his head to one side. ‘Still, it looks like we won’t be disrupting the schedules. And it does no harm to keep the locals on side.’

‘What do we know about Entry Island, Jacques?’ Crozes asked.

The big man pulled on his moustache. ‘Not a lot, Lieutenant. Main industry’s fishing. Dwindling population. All English-speakers. Fewer than a hundred, I think.’

‘One less now,’ Crozes said, and there was some muted laughter.

Sime glanced across the aisle and saw Marie-Ange smiling. With her short, brown, blonde-streaked hair and lean, athletic figure, there was something almost boyish about her. But nothing masculine in her liquid green eyes, or the full red lips she stretched across the white teeth of that disarming smile. She caught him looking at her, and the smile immediately vanished.

He turned back to the window and felt his ears pop as the small aircraft banked to the right and began its descent. For a moment he was dazzled by a flash of red sunlight reflecting off the ocean, before the aircraft banked again and he saw the Îles de la Madeleine for the first time. A string of big and small islands linked by causeways and sandbanks, lying on an axis that ran from south-west to north-east. Oddly, it formed an overall shape not unlike a fish-hook, and was perhaps around sixty kilometres in length.

As they turned to make their final descent towards the airstrip on the Île du Havre aux Maisons, the pilot told them that if they looked out to their right they would see Entry Island sitting on its own on the east side of the Baie de Plaisance.

Sime saw it for the first time, silhouetted against  the rising sun and lying along the horizon with its two distinctive humps like some toppled Easter Island statue, almost lost in a pink early morning mist that rose from the sea. And quite unexpectedly he felt a shiver of disquiet down his spine.

III

Sime stood stamping on the quayside, breath billowing about his head in the early morning light as Lapointe reversed their minibus on to the Ivan-Quinn ferry. Flight cases packed with their equipment were strapped to the roof. Sime wore jeans, leather boots and a hooded cotton jacket, and stood a little apart from the others. Not a space that the casual observer might have noticed, but to him it felt like a rift as deep as the Grand Canyon. And it was more than just language that separated them. Blanc crossed the divide to offer him a cigarette. Had he known him better, he would have known better. But Sime appreciated the gesture.

‘Gave it up,’ he said.

Blanc grinned. ‘Easiest thing in the world.’ Sime cocked a quizzical eyebrow. ‘Is it?’ ‘Sure. I’ve done it hundreds of times.’

Sime smiled and they watched in silence for a while as Lapointe manoeuvred into the tight, two-vehicle car deck. He glanced at his co-interrogator. Blanc was six inches smaller than Sime, and carrying a good deal more weight. He had a head of thick, curly black hair balding on top, a monk’s tonsure in the making. ‘How’s your English?’ Sime said.

Blanc pulled a face. ‘I understand it okay. But I don’t speak it so good.’ He nodded his head vaguely beyond the harbour wall. ‘I hear these Entry islanders refuse to speak French.’ He snorted. ‘I’m glad you’re doing the talking.’ Sime nodded. Blanc would sit with two monitors and a recorder at the end of a cable in another room and take notes while Sime conducted the interviews on camera. Everything was recorded these days.

Lapointe was parked up now, and the rest of them walked up the vehicle ramp and on to the ferry, squeezing down a narrow corridor to the seating area in the bow. Sime let them go and climbed the stairs to the top deck, skirting the wheelhouse to make his way to the front of the boat. There he leaned on the rail beneath a torn CTMA flag, and counted three cruise ships berthed at various quays.

It was another ten minutes before the ferry slipped out of the harbour, gliding past the outer breakwater on a sea like glass, to reveal Entry Island in the far distance, stretched out on the far side of the bay, the sun only now rising above a gathering of dark morning cloud beyond it. The island drew Sime’s focus and held it there, almost trancelike, as the sun sent its reflection careening towards him, creating what was almost a halo effect around the island itself. There was something magical about it. Almost mystical.

IV

None of them knew if the ferry was usually met by this many people, but the tiny quay was crowded with vehicles and curious islanders when the ferry berthed at the harbour on Entry Island. Sergeant Enquêteur André Aucoin from the Sûreté on Cap aux Meules was there to meet them. Middleaged but lacking experience, he was overawed by the arrival of real cops from the mainland, but enjoying his fifteen minutes in the sun. This was his first murder. He sat up beside Lapointe in the front of the minibus and briefed them on it during their bumpy ride across the island.

He pointed to a huddle of buildings above the road just past Brian Josey’s restaurant and general store on Main Street. ‘Can’t see it from here, but that’s the airstrip up there. Cowell had his own single-engined plane that he used to fly back and forth to Havre aux Maisons. There’s easy access from there by scheduled flight to Quebec City or Montreal for business meetings. He kept a Range Rover here at the strip.’

‘What business was he in?’ Crozes asked.

‘Lobsters, Lieutenant.’ Aucoin chuckled. ‘What other business is there on the Madeleine islands?’

Sime noticed the thousands of lobster creels heaped up against brightly coloured wooden houses and barns set back from the road and dotted about the rolling green pasture of the island interior. There were no trees, just telegraph poles leaning at odd angles, and electric cables looping from one to the other. A late cut of summer grasses had produced big round hay bales that punctuated the landscape, and in the distance he saw the spire of a white-painted wooden church, the long shadows of gravestones reaching down the slope towards them in the yellow early light.

Aucoin said, ‘Cowell ran half the lobster boats in the Madeleines, landing around fifteen million dollars’-worth a year. Not to mention the processing and canning plant he owned on Cap aux Meules.’

‘Was he from the islands?’ Sime asked.

‘A Madelinot born and bred. From the English-speaking community at Old Harry in the north. But his French was good. You wouldn’t have known he wasn’t a native speaker.’

‘And his wife?’

‘Oh, Kirsty’s a native of Entry Island. Hasn’t been off it, apparently, in the ten years since she graduated from Bishop’s University in Lennoxville.’

‘Not once?’ There was incredulity in Crozes’s voice.

‘So they say.’

‘So what happened last night?’

‘Looks like it was her that did it.’

Crozes spoke sharply. ‘I didn’t ask for your opinion, Sergeant. Just the facts.’

Aucoin blushed. ‘According to Kirsty Cowell there was an intruder. A guy in a ski mask. He attacked her, and when the husband intervened he got stabbed and the intruder ran off.’

He couldn’t hide his disbelief and his own interpretation slipped out again. ‘It’s pretty weird. I mean, I know you guys are the experts, but you just don’t get break-ins here on Entry Island. The only way on and off since the air service got cut is by ferry, or private boat. It’s unlikely that anyone could motor into the harbour and out again without someone noticing. And there’s only one other jetty on the island. A small private quay that Cowell had built at the foot of the cliffs below his house. But the currents there make it pretty treacherous, so it’s hardly ever used.’

‘Another islander, then,’ Sime said.

The look that Aucoin turned in his direction was laden with sarcasm. ‘Or a figment of Mrs Cowell’s imagination.’

They left the lighthouse on  their  right  and  turned  up the hill towards the Cowell house. Most of the homes on the island were traditional in design, wooden-framed with shingle-clad walls or clapboard siding beneath steeply pitched shingle roofs. They were vividly painted in primary colours. Red, green, blue, and sometimes more bizarrely in shades of purple or ochre, window and door frames picked out in white or canary-yellow. Lawns were well maintained. A local preoccupation, it seemed, and they passed several islanders out with their lawnmowers profiting from the autumn  sunshine.

The Cowell house itself stood out from the others, not only in size but in design. It was out of place, somehow, like an artificial Christmas tree in a forest of natural pines. It was not of the island. A long yellow-painted building of clapboard siding with a red roof broken by dormers and turrets and a large arched window. As they pulled around the gravel path at the cliff side, they saw that there was a conservatory built along almost the entire south-facing length of it, windows looking out across a manicured lawn towards the fence that ran along the cliff’s edge.

‘It’s bloody huge,’ Lapointe said.

Aucoin blew air through pursed lips, savouring the importance that his local knowledge gave him. ‘Used to be a church hall,’ he said. ‘With a bell tower. Over on Havre Aubert. Cowell had it cut in three and floated  across on barges brought up specially from Quebec City. They reassembled it here on the cliffs, then finished it inside and out to the highest specs. The interior’s quite amazing. Had it done for his wife, apparently. Nothing was too good or too expensive for his Kirsty, according to the neighbours.’

Sime’s eyes wandered to a smaller property no more than fifty yards away. It stood a little lower on the slope, a traditional island house, blue and white, with a covered porch that looked out over the red cliffs. It seemed to sit on the same parcel of land. ‘Who lives there?’

Aucoin followed Sime’s eyeline. ‘Oh that’s her place.’ ‘Kirsty Cowell’s?’

‘That’s right.’

‘You mean they lived in separate houses?’

‘No, that’s the house she grew up in and inherited from her parents. She and her husband both lived in the big house that Cowell built. They had the old place renovated. Used it as a summerhouse, or guest house, apparently. Though according to the folk we’ve spoken to, they never had any. Guests, that is.’ He glanced back at Sime. ‘She’s in there just now, with a policewoman. Didn’t want her messing up the crime scene.’ If he expected some kind of pat on the back, he was disappointed when it didn’t come. He added, ‘At least, not any more than she already has.’

‘What do you mean?’ Marie-Ange spoke sharply and for the first time. Suddenly this was her territory.

Aucoin just smiled. ‘You’ll see, ma’am.’ His importance to them would pass quickly. He was determined to make the most of it while it lasted.

They parked outside the house next to what was presumably Cowell’s Range Rover. Patrolmen from Cap aux Meules had hammered in stakes and stretched crime scene tape between them as they had no doubt seen in the movies. It fluttered and hummed now in the stiffening breeze. MarieAnge got her trunk down from the roof and changed into a suit and hood of white tyvek, slipping bootees over her trainers. The others pulled on plastic overshoes and snapped their hands into latex gloves. Aucoin watched with admiration and envy. Marie-Ange chucked him some shoe covers and gloves. ‘I know you’ve probably tramped all over the place already, but let’s try not to fuck it up any more than you already have.’ He blushed again and glared at her with hate in his heart.

The team moved carefully into the house through sliding doors that took them into a tiled sun room with a hot tub. They passed through it to the conservatory lounge, which was littered with recliners and glass tables, one of which was smashed. Shards of broken glass crunched underfoot. Then up two steps to the main living space, avoiding a trail of dried bloody footprints.

A vast area of polished wooden floor delineated a space that rose up into the arched roof. A large dining table and chairs stood off to the left, and at the far side an open-plan kitchen was partitioned from the main entrance by a standing dresser. A staircase dog-legged up to a mezzanine level on the right, and to their left another three curved steps led up to a sitting area with a grand piano and three-piece suite set around an open fireplace.

Almost in the centre of the floor a man lay on his back, one arm thrown out to his right, the other by his side. He was wearing dark-blue slacks and a white shirt that was soaked in blood. His legs were stretched straight out, slightly parted, his feet in their Italian leather shoes tilting to right and left. His eyes were wide open, as was his mouth. Unnaturally so. But the most striking thing was the way his blood was smeared across the floor all around him. In streaks and pools and random patterns. Bloody footprints seemed to circle him. Naked feet, which had left a trail leading away from the body towards the kitchen and then back, fading on the return before picking up fresh blood to track away to the conservatory and down the steps. The main body of blood was almost dry now, oxidised, sticky and brown in colour.

‘Jesus!’ Marie-Ange’s voice came in a breath. ‘When you said mess you weren’t kidding.’

Aucoin said, ‘This is how it was when we arrived. Mrs Cowell claims she attempted CPR and tried to stop the bleeding. Without success.’

‘Obviously.’ Marie-Ange’s tone was dry.

Aucoin shifted uncomfortably. ‘The footprints are hers. She ran over to the kitchen to get a towel to staunch the flow of blood. One of my men found it lying out there in the grass at first light. When she couldn’t revive him she ran down the hill to a neighbour’s house for help.’ He paused. ‘That’s the story she told them, anyway.’

Marie-Ange moved around the body like a cat, examining every pool and spatter of blood, every footprint and smear on the floor. Sime found it difficult to watch her. ‘There are other footprints here,’ she said. ‘The tread of a shoe.’

‘That would be the nurse. She came when the neighbours called. She had to ascertain that he was dead. Then she called us.’

‘If the wife attempted CPR she must be covered in blood herself,’ Crozes said.

‘Oh yes, sir, she is.’ Aucoin nodded gravely.

‘I hope you haven’t allowed her to wash or change.’ MarieAnge cast him a look almost as acid as her tone.

‘No, ma’am.’

She turned to Lapointe. ‘We’ll need to have her photographed and medically examined, checked for fibres and injuries. I’ll want samples from beneath her nails. And you’ll need to bag her clothes and take them back with you to Montreal for forensic examination.’ She returned her attention to Aucoin. ‘Is there a doctor on the island?’

‘No, ma’am, just the nurse. There’s two of them.  They come week about.’

‘She’ll have to do then. And I guess I’ll have to be the examining officer, since it’s a woman.’

Blanc said, ‘Was there any sign of a break-in?’

Aucoin’s laugh was involuntary. But he quickly caught himself. ‘No. There would be no need to break in. No one on the island locks their doors.’

Lieutenant Crozes clapped his hands. ‘Okay, let’s get started. Have you interviewed the wife, Sergeant Aucoin?’

‘No, sir. I took statements from the neighbours, that’s all.’ ‘Good.’ Crozes turned towards Sime. ‘Why don’t you and Blanc set up in the summerhouse and take an initial statement before we do the medical exam?’


Excerpted from Entry Island by Peter May. Copyright © 2014 by Peter May.
First published in Great Britain in 2014 by 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.

Firestorm by Tamara McKinley – Extract

Firestorm

Long before the white man came to Australia, the Aborigines understood the importance of fire, for it cleanses and clears away the debris of old vegetation to regenerate, propagate and nurture the circle of new life in the bushlands of the Outback.

And yet, when a firestorm threatens an isolated and perhaps divided community, it brings not only devastation and fear, but binds those people in one purpose – to overcome and survive. In the aftermath of such a fire comes the chance to set aside old enmities, past regrets and sadness and to begin rebuilding their lives and nurture what matters most. For in the ashes of the past lie the dormant seeds of new beginnings, and hope for a future unclouded by what had come before.

1

Brisbane, 1946

He knew he must cut a strange, solitary figure in the ill-fitting suit someone had kindly given him, but he had money in his pocket and army discharge papers in his kitbag. To all intents and purposes, he was a free man.

But it wasn’t just the glare on the water that brought the tears to his eyes as he looked out across the Brisbane River, and as they rolled down his thin face he unashamedly let them fall. He’d waited so long to return home to Australia, had held the scents, sights and sounds in his head and heart like a sweet promise to sustain him throughout the horrors of jungle warfare and the privations of the Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. But he’d found no redemption in this homecoming, for despite the long months of care in the hospital, he was still haunted by his experiences, and now had to face a new battle against another, far more invincible enemy.

He was thirty-four, and had seen things no man should ever see – had survived the worst of man’s inhumanity, only to discover that his weakened, battered body had been invaded by cancer and that he was going to die anyway. The irony of his situation hit him hard, and he raged silently against the cruelty of Fate as he dashed away the tears and struggled for composure.

Once he felt ready to face the world again, he hoisted the kitbag over his bony shoulder, turned his back on the river and headed for the train station. He’d discharged himself from the hospital this morning against doctor’s orders, but he had a feeling the surgeon understood his need to use whatever time was left to him to embrace this momentary freedom and seek some kind of peace.

He slowly made his way through the bustling city, awed by the new buildings and the sense of purpose in the people around him. It was daunting to be free after so many years of following orders and being under the lash, and he was disconcerted by the traffic noise and the swirl of people hurrying past him. The city had changed during his absence – but then so had he – and now he was a stranger, invisible to those around him, a thin shadowy figure spared not even a glance.

Their lack of curiosity didn’t touch him as he continued on his way, for his heart and his mind were focused on a place far from here – a place where the silence is broken only by the sough of the wind in the eucalyptus – where the enormous sky stretches above endless plains of rich red earth and scrubby pastures, and the clear, bright light falls on the old wallaby tracks that would eventually lead him home.

*****

The deep rumbles of thunder rolled over the Outback plains, the sky darkening with roiling clouds as forks of lighting flashed over the hills, reflected in the depleted rivers and billabongs. The heat was intense, the very air electric with the powerful storm that was building to the south-west of Morgan’s Reach. And, as the desperate farmers looked up at those threatening skies from their parched land, they prayed that this time the storm would break and that after three long years of waiting the rains would finally come.

Morgan’s Reach exists only because of the natural spring that flows even in the driest years. The tiny settlement of less than twenty dwellings lies deep in the Queensland Outback, far from the highway at the end of a meandering dirt track. The main street is half a mile long and wide enough to accommodate a team of oxen, but it leads only to the cattle trails and ancient Aboriginal and animal tracks that traverse the surrounding bush. There are no signposts to Morgan’s Reach, for the people who live and work on the vast sheep and cattle stations that surround it know where it is and, because of its geography, it remains hidden from outsiders unless they have business there.

Rebecca Jackson’s grandfather, Rhys Morgan, was a doctor of medicine, explorer, adventurer, benefactor and eccentric who stumbled across this remote oasis back in 1889. Having discovered what he considered to be the perfect location for a bush hospital, he’d celebrated his fortieth birthday by digging the foundations of the hospital and giving the settlement his name. All he needed then was a wife.

Gwyneth Davies was twenty and feeling stifled by her parents’ ever-pressing desire to see her married off to a man they thought could elevate their position in Brisbane society. Her resolve was beginning to weaken when she literally bumped into Rhys Morgan on the boardwalk outside the drapers’ shop. In the time it had taken to gather up her packages and accept his offer of a cup of tea in a nearby cafe, Gwyneth had fallen in love.

Despite her genteel upbringing, Gwyneth was of tough Welsh stock, and not easily daunted by the prospect of living out her life in the back of beyond and, with this exciting, driven man at her side, she knew she was in for an adventure.

Yet she was a woman of strong opinions, and when she caught her first glimpse of the brushwood and tin hovel her new husband expected her to live in, she’d made it very clear that she had no intentions of doing so. Rhys, rather awestruck by this forceful young woman he’d married, quickly realised that if he was to keep her, he must build her a proper home. Gwyneth had overseen the work with a judicious eye to detail, and when she was satisfied that it suited her she’d moved in the furniture she’d brought with her, rolled up her sleeves and got on with her new and challenging life.

Over the decades that followed, Gwyneth worked at Rhys’s side, tending the sick and comforting the dying. She endured the flies and the dust in this most primitive of surroundings, and learned to survive fire, flood, heat and drought as she raised her six children and bullied the School Board into sending a teacher to the small school she’d had built in the centre of town.

Rhys had become close to three of his grandchildren, Millicent, Rebecca and Terence, and had lived long enough to meet his great-grandson, Danny. He’d reached the grand age of ninety when in the spring of 1939 he finally succumbed to the harsh environment and the pressures of his far-flung practice. Gwyneth had lost not only a husband, but her dearest, closest friend, and she mourned him still. Yet she gave thanks that he’d gone in peace, safe in the knowledge that his eldest son, Hugh, would carry on his lifetime’s work, and that Hugh’s wife, Jane, and daughter, Rebecca, would be at his side.

The bush hospital had changed since those very early days, and the facilities it offered now were far more sophisticated. In place of the old tumbledown shack there was a single-storey wooden building that stood back from the road in a large plot, its deep verandas and green painted shutters offering shade on the hottest of days and a view down the dirt track that eventually met the main highway. There was a single ward, an isolation room, a consulting room with a small operating theatre tucked behind it in case of emergencies, a kitchen and a proper indoor bathroom and lavatory. The medical stores were kept under lock and key behind a sturdy door, and the two-way radio was linked to the one in the homestead next door where Rebecca and her nine-year-old son, Danny, now lived with her parents.

Rebecca had closed all the shutters to keep out the fierce noonday sun, so the ward was dim and should have been relatively cool. But the squeaking ceiling fan wasn’t doing much to alleviate the heat and, as she walked down the ward to check on her six patients, she made a mental note to get it oiled before it drove everyone mad.

Her starched apron crackled as she moved quietly past the beds in her rubber-soled shoes. It was unusual to have every bed occupied, but none of the cases had been serious enough for the Flying Doctor to whisk them away to the main hospital in Brisbane, and most of them would go home the following day. Satisfied that they were comfortable after their lunch, she left them to doze and went out onto the veranda.

The heat shimmered on the wide dirt road and the air was still and heavy, laced with a tang of copper that heralded an electric storm. Eucalyptus trees wilted by the depleted waterhole, and the birds were silent as the sun beat down on the corrugated iron roofs and patches of yellowing grass. There had been no rain worth mentioning for over three years now, and the likelihood of fire was growing by the day as the farmers on the outlying cattle and sheep stations struggled to feed and water their dwindling stock.

Rebecca unfastened the top button of her blue-and-white striped dress, thankful she didn’t wear starched collars and cuffs as she’d had to during her training in Sydney. She checked the watch pinned to her apron bib, glanced up at the dark clouds gathering to the west and then surveyed the deserted road that ran through the small settlement. There was no sign of Danny, even though she’d told him in no uncertain terms to be back here by twelve. At this rate, she thought darkly, he was in danger of missing out on his birthday party tomorrow.

She chewed her lip, fretful at the memory of how he’d refused to listen to her this morning when she’d tried to explain yet again that his father, Adam, was dead and that there was no hope of his ever returning – and how he’d stomped off, slamming the screen door behind him. Her son’s habit of disappearing into the bush was worrying – not least because of the reason he kept doing it. She had hoped that now he’d started at boarding school in Brisbane he’d grow out of this obsession and realise it was a childish fantasy born of a deep longing – but it seemed that nothing had changed, and that this school holiday would follow the same pattern as all the others.

Rebecca had thought long and hard about how to deal with Danny – had even driven the sixty miles north to Killigarth Station to seek advice from her best friend, Amy Blake. Their circumstances were very similar, for Amy was a war widow too, her husband John killed in Malaya just like Adam. She lived with her parents on their cattle station so, like Rebecca, had the love and support of her family to help her through the painful mourning period and to raise her son, George, who was the same age as Danny. But even the wise and gentle Amy couldn’t help, and it made Rebecca feel very alone sometimes.

Impatient that she was beginning to feel sorry for herself, Rebecca left the shade of the veranda, pushed through the outer screen door and went down the steps and into the glare of the sun. She was used to the vagaries of the Outback weather, for she’d been born and raised in Morgan’s Reach and had spent nearly every one of her thirty years here, but it was sad to see how badly her mother’s lovely garden had been ravaged by the long drought.

She crossed the dying lawn, noted her father’s old utility was parked by the homestead steps and pushed through the fly-screen doors that sheltered the veranda and the house. Nothing much had changed since her childhood, for the furniture had always been battered, the curtains and rugs faded by the sun, but it was home – a refuge she and Danny had returned to when it was clear that Adam would not be coming back from the war.

Her parents, Hugh and Jane, were sitting in the shabby kitchen, the remains of their hasty lunch scattered on the table. Hugh looked exhausted, with dark shadows under his eyes, but Jane looked as cool and elegant as ever in her nurse’s uniform.

‘Have you seen Danny?’ Rebecca asked.

Hugh shook his head. ‘I’ve only just got back from Warratah Station, and didn’t pass him on the track. Why? You lost him again?’

Rebecca nodded and headed back to the door. ‘I’ll go and see if he’s with Gran,’ she said.

‘You worry too much over that boy,’ said Hugh through a vast yawn. ‘He’ll be ten tomorrow, and he knows his way around the bush.’

Rebecca and her mother exchanged knowing looks, for they shared the same worry over Danny – and it had very little to do with his familiarity with the bush and its dangers. ‘That’s as maybe,’ she replied, ‘but he’s running wild, and it’s time he learned to do as he’s told.’

She left the homestead and crossed the deserted main street to the house on the corner. Granny Gwyn lived in a neat one-storey wooden stilt-house which faced the hospital but backed onto the bush, and Danny loved going over there to help look after Gwyneth’s menagerie of sick and abandoned animals, and to listen to her many stories about the old days. If he wasn’t there, then she’d have to go and see Sarah at the native shacks on the far side of the town to see if her son, Billy Blue, had disappeared too. The pair of them were always going off together, and she wouldn’t mind betting they were up to some mischief or other.

As she was about to unlatch the gate she heard the unmistakable roar of a fast-moving truck. Turning, she realised it was Ben Freeman, the local fire chief, and as he screeched to a halt beside her he covered her in a cloud of dust.

Despite her pleasure at seeing him, she greeted him with a frown. ‘Thanks, Ben,’ she muttered, trying to shake the worst of the dirt from her apron and dress. ‘These were clean on this morning, and now I’m going to have to change before I go back on the ward.’

‘Sorry, Becky,’ he drawled as he swung out of the utility and ambled over to her.

He didn’t look a bit sorry – not with that stupid grin on his face. But it was a grin that made her heart flutter and sent a thrill right through her, so she supposed she would have to forgive him. ‘What’s the rush anyway?’ she asked, shielding her eyes from the sun as she looked from the boots and moleskins, past the check shirt straining across the broad chest and up to his face.

‘I wanted to catch you on your lunch break,’ he replied, his very blue eyes regarding her from beneath the broad brim of his bush hat. ‘I wondered if you and Danny might like to come up to my place for some tucker this evening?’

‘That would be good, Ben, but Danny’s gone walkabout again, and when I do find him, he’ll be confined to his room for the rest of the day.’ She smiled up at him to soften her refusal. ‘I’m sorry. Perhaps another time?’

He tucked his hands into the pockets of his moleskins as he leaned against the utility and crossed his long legs at the ankle. ‘I reckon I can wait a while longer,’ he said softly, ‘but it’s been almost a year, Becky. I was hoping we could make it a more permanent arrangement between us.’

She let him take her hand and draw her towards him. ‘We will, Ben, I promise,’ she replied. ‘But Danny has to get used to the idea, and he’s not ready yet. Please be patient.’

‘I’ll try, Becky, but it ain’t easy,’ he murmured.

His eyes were mesmerising as he gazed down at her and she could see the fine lines across the tanned flesh of his face. At thirty-five, Ben was a handsome man, and the knowledge that he loved her and wanted to marry her and take on Danny made her feel a warmth that had little to do with the blazing sun.

‘I’m sure we could manage a few quiet minutes together while Danny’s party’s in full swing tomorrow,’ she said softly. ‘And then there are the picnic races next month. Perhaps we could all go and make a day of it?’

‘Yeah, that’d be good. Want me to pick you up?’

She thought about it and then shook her head. ‘It’s probably better if we meet you there.’

‘You’re not having second thoughts about us, are you?’ His expression changed and his eyes clouded with doubt.

She glanced quickly along the street and lightly kissed his cheek. ‘Not for a minute,’ she assured him. ‘You’re the man for me, Ben Freeman,’ she added softly, ‘and I have no intention of losing you. But you know how gossip starts out here – let’s keep it to ourselves a bit longer, eh?’

He grinned down at her. ‘Reckon that’ll have to do for now,’ he said.

She giggled. ‘Reckon it will. Now, I really do have to go.’ ‘Catch you later then,’ he said wistfully. At her nod, he tipped his hat brim over his eyes and opened the utility door. ‘I’ll keep an eye out for Danny,’ he reassured her, ‘and if I come across him, I’ll bring him home.’

Rebecca watched as he drove off, raising yet another cloud of dust in his wake. Poor Ben had been badly hurt once before, receiving a ‘Dear John’ letter from his fiancée while he was fighting Rommel’s army in Egypt – and it was clear that he’d begun to wonder if Rebecca was really serious about their relationship.

She gave a deep sigh as she walked down the path and headed towards the back of her grandmother’s house for, in their different ways, they’d both been damaged by the war. And yet time was indeed a great healer, and now they were ready to commit to a new future together. But Danny was the sticking point, and she could do nothing to further this burgeoning relationship until her son would accept that his father was dead.

*****

Gwyneth was feeling every one of her seventy-seven years today, but was damned if she was going to let a few niggles stop her getting through her many chores. She ignored the ache in her knees and shoulders as she finished feeding the last of the orphaned kangaroo joeys and tucked him firmly down into the pillowcase that she’d tied to the veranda railings. There were four pillowcases in all, each bulging with its long-legged cargo, and it had become quite time-consuming to look after them all when she had so many other things to attend to. It was at times like this that she missed Danny, and she fleetingly wondered where he’d got to this morning.

‘G’day, Gran. Is Danny with you?’

Gwyneth turned and her welcoming smile faltered as she noted Rebecca’s worried expression. ‘I haven’t seen him since he came to feed Wally last night,’ she replied. ‘Why? Has he gone off with Billy Blue again?’

Rebecca chewed her lip. ‘It looks like it,’ she muttered crossly, ‘and when I get hold of him he’ll get a clip round the ear for disobeying me.’

Gwyneth shrugged in an attempt to lighten Rebecca’s worry. ‘He’s a little boy,’ she replied, ‘and boys rarely do as they’re told. I shouldn’t worry, Rebecca. He knows the bush well enough and will be back when he’s hungry.’

‘That’s not the point, Gran, and you know it.’ Rebecca’s blue eyes glistened with unshed tears as she tucked her light brown hair behind her ears. ‘I thought it would be different now he’s away at school so much of the year. But it seems he’s still unable to accept . . .’ She blinked rapidly and folded her arms tightly about her waist. ‘I tried talking to him this morning, but he stormed off, refusing to listen. It’s as if he’s punishing me every time he goes bush, and I don’t know what to do for the best, Gran,’ she admitted softly.

Gwyneth had her own ideas about that, but knew Rebecca was in no mood to listen to some straight talking. In many ways, Danny and his mother were very alike, for they didn’t appreciate good advice, no matter how well-meant it was. And yet Rebecca had been through a lot these past years, and she deserved all the help she could get. ‘I’ll try to have a word with him again,’ she murmured, ‘but don’t expect miracles, Becky. It’s a big thing to come to terms with.’

‘George Blake is the same age, but he’s accepted that John won’t be coming back. I had hoped that now they were at school in Brisbane together, Danny would follow his lead,’ she replied with a watery smile.

‘He’s a bright little boy who thinks too much,’ said Gwyneth drily, ‘but eventually he’s going to have to accept the way things are. And he will, Becky. I promise.’

‘I hope you’re right.’ She sighed. ‘This has gone on long enough, and every time he disappears into the bush it just brings it all back – and I need to put it behind me now – start again.’

Gwyneth eyed her granddaughter fondly. ‘Then that is what you must do,’ she said briskly. ‘You’re still young, and Ben Freeman seems to be a good man.’

Rebecca blushed. ‘How do you know about Ben?’

Gwyneth chuckled. ‘I might be getting on, but I’m not blind, or daft. I’ve noticed how he’s been coming into town more regularly – and the way you are with him.’

‘I’d better get back,’ she said, the blush still colouring her cheeks. ‘Dad’s worn out from being up all night, Mum has some house calls to make this afternoon, and there are still a hundred and one things to do for Danny’s birthday party. If you see that young larrikin, tell him to get his skinny backside home, or suffer the consequences.’

Gwyneth watched her leave, then brushed back the stray wisps of grey hair from her sweaty face, rubbed her grubby hands down her trousers and tugged at the hem of her loose cotton shirt. She’d never been a woman who’d set much store in fancy clothes or make-up, and living out here all these years meant it was practical and comfortable to wear sturdy boots and old, scruffy clothes worn soft with use. But she was feeling the heat today, could taste the copper in the air and the weight of the gathering storm – not only from the elements, but within her family.

With her thoughts still troubled by Rebecca’s unhappy situation, she grabbed her walking stick and broad-brimmed hat and went carefully down the veranda steps to check on the rest of her menagerie.

The chicken run and aviary had been set up in the shade of the trees at the bottom of the garden where the bush slowly encroached on the settlement and the  feral  goats  grazed. The pens beside the runs were for the injured and orphaned animals that people always seemed to be bringing her, and she spent hours every day cleaning them out and tending to them.

There was a lorikeet with a broken wing, a pair of orphaned possums, several lizards of various types and with various injuries, a rock wallaby recovering from a nasty abscess and a wombat joey that had been born, unusually, during this long drought, and which would have died of starvation if she hadn’t found him cowering in the abandoned burrow.

The lorikeet was almost ready to be released, and the possums were thriving. The lizards were asleep in their hollowed-out tree branches, so it was difficult to tell how they were, and the tiny rock wallaby’s abscess was healing nicely. She nodded with satisfaction, glanced about her and realised Wally, the wombat joey, had escaped from the burrow she’d made for him under the veranda. No doubt he was around somewhere, getting into mischief – just like young Danny.

She fed the chickens and stood in the shade of the overhanging trees, relishing the brief respite from the sun as she regarded her surroundings. Morgan’s Reach might be isolated, the population scattered – but it was a tight-knit community that had not escaped the dark, tragic clouds of two world wars.

Two generations of young Australian men had heard the call to arms from England – the land they still considered their ‘mother country’ – and they had rushed to enlist, eager to fight and prove their courage. They’d left the rural stations to the women, their Aboriginal stockmen and those too old, too young or too unfit to be drafted into the services, trusting that there would be something to come home to when it was all over. But, like Rebecca’s Adam and Amy Blake’s John, many had not returned, and their loss was still sorely felt by everyone.

She experienced the now familiar pang of sadness, but didn’t allow it to linger for it did no good to anyone, and turned her attention to a much earlier past. Morgan’s Reach had grown since she and Rhys had come here all those years ago, and Gwyneth’s lips twitched with a wry smile as she remembered how shocked she’d been to discover Rhys’s paradise was in fact a ragtag collection of ramshackle wooden houses, dubious tin shacks and wattle-and-daub humpies.

The bush hospital that Rhys had so proudly expounded upon turned out to be a one-roomed wooden shack on stilts with a veranda and a sagging roof – and their proposed home wasn’t much better. There was no door or window, the floor was compacted earth and she’d been expected to cook on a camp oven which had been set outside next to a washtub and mangle. It was a far cry from the comfortable home she’d had in Brisbane, and she’d told him in no uncertain terms that she wouldn’t live there.

Gwyneth chuckled. Poor Rhys. He hadn’t quite realised then how strong-willed she was, but over the years he’d come to admire her spirit, and she could look back on a long and happy marriage.

Morgan’s Reach in those days had a tiny church, a pub and a general store which stood beside the single dirt track that had been widened to accommodate the mobs of cattle and sheep the drovers brought through to water at the spring on their way to market and the bullock teams that passed through laden with bales of wool and supplies.

It had been a rough sort of place, especially for the few women settlers, for the itinerant shearers, ringers, bullockies and drovers would come in to drink their wages and fight among themselves before they moved on. The small local tribe of Aborigines had been suspicious of everyone, and very few ventured into town, preferring to keep to the old ways by living in their traditional camp in the bush and often disappearing for months on walkabout.

Gwyneth’s expression was wry as she thought about the changes that had been slowly wrought over the last fifty years. The drovers and shearers still came into town to drink and fight, but it had become quite respectable now, for there were more women, and the sturdier houses that lined the main thoroughfare had picket fences and painted fly-screens.

The simple one-roomed church that stood at the northern end of the street was the same, with a few battered pews and an old kitchen table for an altar. But the vicar no longer had to live in a tent, for a fine house had been built by his parishioners just next door to the cemetery. It was just a shame that the Reverend Algernon Baker, the latest incumbent, was a dour, unsociable man whom no one liked, despite the best efforts of his timid little wife, Frances, and the impish charm of their twin boys. But then that charm often led to trouble, and the boys were fast earning a reputation for mischief.

Gwyneth turned her thoughts to the schoolhouse which sat in the next large plot, and was ably run by young Emily Harris, who lived in the small cottage behind it. The old church hall had long burned down, so the school doubled  as  a dance hall and meeting place at the weekends.

The general store was fronted by a boardwalk shaded by tarpaulins, and further along were several small wooden cottages and a blacksmith’s forge where Charley Sawyer held sway and continued to argue ferociously with his spinster neighbours over his randy old dog. The police station was opposite – though to call it by such a grand name was a little ridiculous, for Jake Webber ran the office from his front room, and the prison cell was a lean-to at the back of the house.

A few Aborigines still followed their traditional ways, but most of them now lived in shacks on the northern edges of the settlement, where the old bush camp had once been. They’d slowly integrated into the community by working as jackaroos and drovers on the cattle stations and, after a great deal of cajoling from Gwyneth, sent their children to the school.

Bert and Sal Davenport who ran the Dog and  Drover hotel, which was handily placed near the church, were not

allowed by law to serve the natives in the pub, but the ever-wily Bert got around this by selling them beer from the back window. Unfortunately this led to some quite serious fights, for the natives had a low tolerance to alcohol, and now the townspeople were beginning to badger Jake to do something to stop Bert. Not that it would do any good, thought Gwyneth with a wry smile, for they’d discovered how to make a lethal hooch of their own from the berries and leaves they foraged from the bush.

She turned her attention back to her home. The original homestead had burned down long ago, and its replacement was destroyed by termites. In their place now stood a sturdy wooden house on concrete pillars which had been topped and tailed with beaten metal to deter the white ants. A veranda ran around the house, offering shade on the hottest day and a relatively cool place to sleep at night behind the fly netting, which had been firmly nailed in place.

Danny and his friend George Blake loved sleeping out there during school holidays, but Gwyneth suspected they often went walkabout at night, and that worried her. The bush was a dangerous place in the dark no matter how well you knew it, and even though they were usually accompanied by their Aboriginal mate, Billy Blue, Gwyneth couldn’t rest easy until she heard them return.

She gave a deep sigh. It was good to have young kids about the place again, for five of her other children had flown the nest years ago and were scattered all over Australia. She rarely saw them, and the only real contact she had was with Bethany’s daughter, Millicent, who’d recently moved to the area with her husband to work on Carey Downs Station.

Hugh, her eldest son, was the only one who’d come back after training as a doctor, but he was in his mid-fifties now, and Gwyneth knew that, despite the Flying Doctors’ Service and

the unstinting help from Jane and Rebecca, he was beginning to find it all too much. There had been some hope that his son, Terence, might perpetuate the family tradition once he’d qualified, but Gwyneth had strong doubts that he would, for she’d met his wife, Sandra, and a woman like that wouldn’t fit in here at all.

Aware that she was wasting time wool-gathering, she nevertheless continued to lean on her walking stick and enjoy the cooling shadows cast by the trees. The garden wasn’t up to much, she thought, as she eyed the ragged tufts of grass, the bare patches of red earth and the encroaching lantana and weeds. It was a far cry from the lush lawns and heavily scented rose garden she could just remember from her childhood – but then this wasn’t Wales, and the amount of rain they’d had these past three years wouldn’t have filled a teacup.

At the thought of tea, she headed back to the house and, as she passed the large birdcage which always sat beside the screen door, she was greeted by her late husband’s sulphur- crested cockatoo.

‘G’day, g’day, g’day,’ he squawked, his bright yellow crest bristling as he bobbed up and down on his perch.

‘G’day to you too, Coco,’ she replied as she replenished his water bowl and fed him a few seeds.

‘Pretty boy, pretty boy. Arrgh.’ Coco shuffled back and forth on his perch, lost his balance and just managed to cling on as he swung upside down and flapped his wings. He was aptly named, for he was a complete clown.

‘You’re just a silly old show-off,’ she muttered affectionately. ‘But I haven’t got time to stand about watching you all day. I’ve got a birthday cake to make.’

She opened the screen door, letting it clatter behind her as she entered the gloomy interior and headed for the kitchen. She’d closed all the shutters to keep out the sun, but she didn’t need light to see where she was going, for she knew every dusty corner of this cluttered house.

Rhys had travelled the world before they’d met, and had been an enthusiastic collector of artefacts and curiosities. Gwyneth regarded them as mostly junk and not worthy of houseroom, but she hadn’t had the heart to get rid of any of it after he’d passed away, and they’d become so much a part of her life she now barely noticed them.

There were warrior shields, spears and shrunken heads from Africa; wooden carvings from India and the South Sea Islands; an elephant tusk, a rhino horn, stone figures from Egypt, and a thousand and one books, magazines, old maps and diaries. Drawers and boxes were stuffed with a plethora of meaningless souvenirs, and his desk remained as cluttered today as it had been on that morning seven years ago when he’d sat back in his old leather chair and fallen asleep for the last time.

Gwyneth wound her way through it all into the kitchen. The range was lit, making the little room like a furnace, and she opened the shutters in the hope there might be a bit of a breeze to cool the place down. As the light poured in she discovered to her dismay that Wally had found his way into her larder and was happily snuffling through her last sack of sugar.

‘You’re a naughty boy,’ she scolded, avoiding his lethal claws and grabbing him by the scruff. ‘No wonder you’re getting so fat.’ She couldn’t help but grin as he eyed her solemnly and continued to lick the sugar from his nose and paws with relish. She carried him to the back door and dumped him on the veranda. ‘Shoo,’ she hissed.

Wally eyed her mournfully and then wandered off in a huff, his bandy legs so pigeon-toed it was a wonder he didn’t trip himself up.

‘Right,’ she said forcefully. ‘Now, perhaps I can get on.’

She returned to the kitchen, her mind busy with plans for the birthday cake. Danny was her delight, and when he was away at school she missed his cheeky smile and his endless questions. But a part of her did wish he was more like John Blake’s boy, for George was a quiet, unquestioning child, who had easily accepted the truth about his father’s demise.

Gwyneth sighed as she weighed out the cake ingredients. She could only hope that Danny’s long absences from Morgan’s Reach, and his friendship with George, would eventually make him see sense, but after the scene Rebecca had described to her earlier she was beginning to have serious doubts – and that worried her deeply.


Excerpted from Firestorm by Tamara McKinley. Copyright © 2013 by Tamara McKinley.
First published in 2014 by Quercus Editions Ltd, 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 Winter Folly by Lulu Taylor – Extract

The Winter Folly

Prologue

A strange, ghostly figure moved silently through the darkness, its white gown billowing out behind as it trod lightly along the stony path, never looking down but drifting onwards as easily as though it were a sunny afternoon and not the dead of night.

A large cold white moon shone hard above, casting a chill light and making the inky night sky around it glow navy. Stars glittered like scattered ice and beneath them the world had been leached of colour, leaving only gradations of grey and black.

The figure skirted the lawns of the big house where the grass was the colour of granite, and drifted past the walled kitchen garden. It went down the yew walk where the shadows were thick and huge hedges loomed on either side, then passed through the old wrought-iron gates that never closed, the ones flanked by high pillars with stone owls sitting on top. It walked out onto the bridle path and on into the woods. There were hoots and flurries in the high branches of trees, and brushings and shakings in the undergrowth, the snapping of twigs and rustling of dead leaves. A pair of eyes flashed eerie green and yellow, and there was the dark outline of a fox. The woman in white went on, moving without haste but with utter determination.

She turned off the bridle path and into the thicker darkness of the woods where the beams of the moon could not penetrate, then came out again into a clearing where a large dark form stood on the brow of a low hill – the ruins of an old tower that still reached high into the sky. The woman walked towards it, through its empty doorway and into the darkness beyond. She ascended the rickety broken staircase that wound upwards against the ruined walls, going slowly but surely, taking one careful step after another until she reached the highest point of the folly, where a few floorboards remained, blackened, sodden and slippery. The woman paused and then walked slowly over what was left of the floor to where a missing wall had created a gaping hole in the side of the tower. She stood there, luminous in the dark, her white expressionless face turned outwards, gazing over the trees, her hands still clutching the sides of her nightgown, which lifted and billowed gently against the night sky.

She seemed to stand there for an age. Then she turned her face up to the stars, her chin lifted with something that was either defiance or surrender. She looked outwards again, her eyes blank. Slowly, deliberately, she took one step out into the void and then plummeted, her nightgown fluttering like a flag, her hair spreading upwards. Her arms flew out, her fingers splayed, her mouth opened but no sound came out. Then she vanished, swallowed by the shadows at the base of the tower and there was a hard thud and a crack, sharp as a whiplash.

A deep and dreadful silence followed.

 Part One

Chapter One

1969

Alexandra called out: ‘John! John! Come back here!’

John turned to glance at her, his eyes sparkling as he giggled. Then he carried on running, his fair hair bright against the dark foliage. He was fast, considering he was only two years old, and the excitement of the chase only made him dash on more quickly.

She couldn’t help smiling at his merry little face; his soft plump cheeks, button nose and round blue eyes that were gradually changing to grey always softened her heart. All she wanted to do was pick him up and smother that sweet peachy skin with kisses. But she ought to be stern with him if he was going to learn to obey her. ‘John, do as you’re told!’ she said firmly. ‘Be a good boy for Mummy.’ She walked quickly after him, wishing she’d worn something sturdier than her smart square-toed buckle-fronted leather pumps, which were pretty but not at all designed for speed. They’d only come out to wander about the lawn, John on his new plastic tractor, but he’d climbed off and started exploring. After a time, he’d trotted off down the yew walk, stopping to inspect anything that took his interest, while she followed. Whenever she got near, he would straighten up and set off again, his pace surprisingly fast considering his short legs and little feet. At the end of the walk, those blasted gates were open, of course, the old wrought-iron ones flanked by high pillars with stone owls sitting on top. Alexandra had asked for them to be replaced and given orders that until then they were to be kept shut, but the gamekeeper claimed that they had rusted into place and could not be closed.

‘Can’t you oil them?’ she’d demanded, exasperated. ‘It’s dangerous with a small child running about.’

But the gamekeeper had simply looked at her with an expression that seemed to imply the child would be better off for being able to escape her smothering and run away into the freedom of the woods. Her orders still carried little weight, even now.

‘Don’t go through the gates, darling!’ she called, but he ignored her and wandered out between them, singing to himself. Alexandra upped her pace, picking her way along the muddy walk as quickly as she could. She didn’t like him being on the bridle path alone. Once she was through the gates, she could see him further on, quite a way down it already. He was probably remembering the way from walks with his father, perhaps when they’d taken his bucket and spade down to the river to dig up mud and pebbles, which he loved doing. He was far too young to fish yet and Alexandra had forbidden him being taken out on the river in the row boat. She herself hadn’t been down to the river for a very long time. Not even the swimming expeditions in the summer, when it was cool and refreshing, could tempt her. She stayed up by the pool near the house instead, perfectly happy to swim in the turquoise chlorinated and overwarm water, and sunbathe on a lounger on the concrete surround, like a tourist at a hotel. The gamekeeper thought she was afraid of the woods, like some of the old men in the village who claimed that ghosts of Roman soldiers were clanking around in there. Somebody’s legions had marched through and the Saxons had ambushed them and cut them to ribbons. They were supposed to be on the march still, homesick, bloodied and bent on revenge. But she didn’t believe all that, of course. Ghosts were absurd, and the wails and screeches that came from the woods at night were those of unfortunate rabbits, caught by a fox or in the metal teeth of those awful traps the keeper put out. The stories had no doubt been spread to scare away poachers.

There was another reason altogether why she never went there.

‘John!’ she called. ‘Come here, darling! Wait for me!’

He laughed again, his short legs moving even faster. He turned off the bridle path and began to follow a track. His red dungarees and white jumper were vivid among the dull wintery colours of the dead bracken, the black-leafed brambles and bare branches, and she saw his fair hair in bright flashes as he ran. She stepped in a patch of mud and slipped, catching her balance just in time to stop herself falling. Her snakeskin pumps and their gold buckles were spattered with black. She should have slipped on her boots and usually would have but they’d come out of the French windows instead of through the boot room. If they’d done that, they’d be wearing coats as well. She shivered. Her cardigan was too thin against the winter wind, and John didn’t have enough on, he ought to be inside. They ought right now to be climbing the stairs to the nursery, where the fire would be burning and Nanny would have set out his tea: boiled eggs probably, and golden-brown toast shiny with melted butter.

‘John! Come back!’ She began to make larger strides to catch up with him but he sensed her approach and put on another burst of speed. ‘Now, don’t be naughty, I shall be cross with you!’

But it was a game to him, she could tell. He had an innocent recklessness; he could run and climb easily enough but had no idea of danger or hurting himself. Only the other day, someone had left the picket gate by the pool unlatched and she’d found John about to take a step onto the tarpaulin that covered the swimming pool, unaware that it would give under his weight.

Now here she was in the woods, the place she disliked so much. Her skin prickled and goosebumped. The undergrowth seemed to be crowding in on her, reaching out to grab her with hundreds of long thorny fingers. She shrank away from it as she went down the path that was mushy under her feet from the recent rain, and gasped out loud when she felt something pluck at her. Turning, she saw she’d snagged her cardigan on a spike of a branch and she fumbled with it until she’d freed herself. When she looked back, John had gone.

‘John, John!’ She began to hurry along the path, fearing that if he turned off it and scrambled away into the undergrowth, he could be lost, disappearing in a moment into the thickets and bracken. She could see him at once, hiding for fun at first, curled up in a little nest beneath a bush like a dormouse, waiting to be found; then, as the cold grew greater and the darkness came down, he would whimper for her, sobbing out that he wanted Mummy as the animals of the night began to sniff around him. ‘John! Where are you?’ Her voice quavered but she tried to inject into it as much command as she could. ‘Come back at once, do you hear?’

She emerged suddenly into a clearing and stopped short, staring wide-eyed at what she saw before her: a folly, half in ruins, but still imposing, reaching into the afternoon sky. It had once been a high, handsome tower with arched windows and battlements, like a place where Rapunzel might have lived, but now it was mouldering and decayed, swathed in ivy, the few remaining battlements like jagged broken teeth. Most of the front of the tower had fallen away, and old masonry lay in heaps and hillocks, overgrown now, about its foot. It was possible to see that there had once been five floors, the bottom two now vanished but remnants of the others remaining, the fifth being mostly intact, though the old boards were no doubt soft and mushy with years of rainfall, frost and mildew. An old staircase twisted up the inside of the tower, treacherous with its broken and missing treads, perilous where the wall had fallen away. It was dark without and within, dank and cold, the breath of decay all around it, its stones thick with moss.

Horrible, rotten old thing! she thought, filled with a fearful revulsion. I wish they would knock it down!

The sight of the old ruin repelled her, and she was overcome with a sense of suffocation that made her want to run away. She saw it often in her dreams, a recurring nightmare in which she was forced to climb it in order to stop something dreadful happening, but she was never able to reach the top in time to prevent it. She hated seeing it in her dreams. The festering reality made her shudder.

She saw a flash of red from inside. John was in there.

At once a horror possessed her, the one she knew from her nightmares: choking panic and a desperate urgency to stop something terrible taking place. She began to run towards the tower. She heard his laugh again, and saw through the gap in the wall that he was climbing the staircase. She knew those stairs from childhood games when she’d been made to go inside: in some places they were as brittle and fragile as a thin layer of ice, ready to snap at any moment, and in others damp, turned spongy and yielding in the centre. A foot could sink down as easily as in wet sand, only below it was nothing at all. She wanted to scream and yell but her heart was pounding in her chest as she gained the interior of the tower. She looked up. It was open to the sky, which showed blue through the remains of the upper floors. Ivy swagged and hung from the old boards and joists, and branches crisscrossed where they had penetrated from outside. It smelt of sodden wood, wet stone and the bitterness of mould.

‘John!’ she called. He was going steadily up the staircase, one small hand pressed against the wall as he went, his tongue out between his lips as he concentrated on each step. He was making fast progress, his path keeping him close to the wall where the treads were strongest, and he instinctively avoided the gaps.

She gasped, her hands prickling with fear. He was surrounded by danger and with every step he took, its consequences grew greater. Below him were heaps of fallen stones, broken beams pointing upwards and worn to spearlike sharpness, rusty nails protruding from them. She imagined him fallen on one, impaled, and a grim nausea swirled in her stomach.

The little boy was higher now; he’d passed the empty first and second floors and was on his way up to the third. She had no choice. She ran to the staircase and began to climb as fast as she could but her progress was hampered by her need to take care. She was heavier than John – what supported him might not support her. Perhaps he was protected by his childlike faith in his own safety, but she was not and her imagination painted quick scenes for her: she lay with a broken leg or smashed ankle, helpless to reach him. No one knew where they were, no one would know where to look. Panic was threatening to choke her and her fingers trembled with adrenaline as she scrabbled for support on the slippery wall. Damn these shoes! she thought. Their soles had no grip, no tread, and she hated them with all her heart. If only she’d been wearing her blasted boots.

‘Stop, John, stop!’ she called.

For a moment he did stop, looking back over his shoulder and smiling at her, his big blue-grey eyes shining with amusement at their funny game. Then he turned back and lifted his little knee with determination to take the next step.

‘John! Please!’ Her voice broke on the words. She wanted to cry but there was no time for that luxury. She knew she had to stay in control. She went on from step to step, fearing that at any moment one would disappear from under her. Ahead of her John had reached the fourth floor and was still climbing. She was gaining on him, she was sure, but progress was so painful and slow. Now he was at the fifth, the staircase ended. He stopped again and looked down at her. The fact she was still coming seemed to propel him onwards and he trotted out across the floor.

She pulled in a sharp breath of panic; the floor was broken in places, and there was no telling where it had lost all strength. At this height the entire front wall of the tower was gone. John was walking towards the gap, at least thirty-five feet above the ground, where there was nothing to prevent him falling.

She found speed from somewhere, flying up the staircase two treads at a time, making split-second decisions about where to place her weight, hoping that her pace would not give the boards time to break beneath her. She heard ominous creaking and cracking as she went but there was no time for that now. All she knew was that she had to reach John as quickly as possible.

He was standing at the edge, one little fist on an outcrop of broken stone, looking out over the woods, his red and white figure bright against the black masonry and the dark trees beyond. A buzzing sensation filled Alexandra’s head and she felt sick and dizzy. The frightfulness of her beloved boy standing on the edge of the tower went beyond the immediate danger and into a more primal place, a pit where something so awful lurked she couldn’t bear to look at it. She was there, at the top of the stairs, on the landing, stepping out onto the boards. She advanced slowly, not shouting now but talking sweetly, calmly to the child as she took each shaking step across the black and slippery floor.

‘Now, John, what did Mummy say? This is very silly. Come away now, come back to me. Come on, shall we go home and find Nanny? Shall we go to the nursery for eggs and toast? You know how you like to dip the soldiers in and give them yellow helmets, and Nanny will let you have your favourite little spoon, won’t she?’

Each step took her closer. In a moment she would be able to reach out and grab him.

He stared up at her, smiling. ‘Neggs,’ he said contentedly. ‘Boil neggs.’

‘That’s right, darling, boiled eggs. Shall we go home and get warm? That’s enough playing for now, isn’t it?’

He nodded his fair head and turned towards her. He looked cold. A bitter breeze was invading the tower and bouncing off its broken walls. It ruffled his soft, straight hair and he gave a little shiver. He was ready to come home.

She smiled with relief and held out her arms to him. He let go of the stony outcrop and made to come towards her. His stout little shoe landed on a slippery wet patch and he lost his balance, beginning to topple. He was going to fall backwards on to his bottom, as he usually did when he stumbled, but this time he would not land with a little jolt, none the worse for it, ready to scramble up and totter off.

She saw his outline against the bare emptiness beyond the absent wall. She knew that he would fall out of the tower. The moment stretched and lengthened as he wavered, his arms held out stiffly, and then began to fall backwards. His eyes opened wide with shock and surprise. With the speed of reflex, Alexandra reached out, strong and fast, and seized the shoulder strap of his dungarees. Hold, hold, she told the little buckle, as it took John’s weight. It was all that was stopping him plummeting to the earth. It held as she yanked him towards her and the next moment he was safe in her arms.

He was quite still, happy at last to surrender to her, comforted by her warm arms wrapped around him. She buried her face in his hair and hugged him tight, not sure whether she was going to cry, laugh or scream.

‘Mummy’s here,’ she murmured instead, her hands shaking. ‘You’re all right, my darling. Mummy’s here.’

Chapter Two

Present day

Delilah sneezed, once, twice, three times in quick succession. The dust up here in the attics had formed layers of grey wool as thick as a carpet, and she had disturbed so much that the air had turned smoky with it. It swirled about, tickling her nostrils and coating her throat. The light from the bare bulb illuminated the clouds of motes, along with all the trunks, boxes, rolled carpets, old pictures, broken furniture and mountains of general bric-a-brac that filled the attics, a series of four on this side of the house, stretching the length of the east wing.

‘Go up if you like,’ John had said when she’d asked. ‘God knows what you’ll find. Mess around as much as you want to.’

It was the only place in the house that she was allowed free rein. When she’d come to live at Fort Stirling six months ago, she’d imagined that she would begin to feel that it belonged to her and that she could control and perhaps even reshape it, just as she had other places where she’d lived. She’d had a childlike excitement in exploring the house, and longed to set her imagination loose on the rooms and restore and refresh them. Everything was new and full of charm then, and she had fallen in love with the lichen-speckled stone pineapples on the terrace balustrade as much as the Louis Quinze chairs, gilded and spindly, in the drawing room. Every window, every corridor had enchanted her, and she’d felt that she had found her perfect setting, a magical place where life would be endlessly beautiful and interesting. But gradually, like seeing the set of a play close up, she’d realised that it wasn’t quite as magnificent as it seemed. The rickety furniture on gilt legs looked splendid but the springs beneath were dropping, the silk damask covering was stained and frayed, and there was black caked into the golden carving.

Now she was beginning to understand that newcomers were not permitted to change anything in the house. Instead she had the sense that the house would possess her rather than the other way around; it would tame her and turn her into one of its own, another in a long line of inhabitants, the vanished people who’d walked the same corridors, sat on the same chairs and slept in the same beds. The thought gave her an unpleasant chill.

Up here in the attics, though, where others rarely came, she could do what she liked. Perhaps here she might feel more like the house’s owner, rather than its inmate.

Delilah began to look through some of the boxes that surrounded her, finding a morass of odds and ends: a collection of broken picture frames, some discarded lamp stands without plugs, bulbs or shades, puzzling little plastic and wire whatnots that must have been part of something once. She stepped over a stack of chairs, lifted a pile of heavy folded velvet curtains and felt a flash of triumph. Now, this was more like it. A large steamer trunk, black and edged in studded leather, with a flat lid that locked with two big brass catches. On the top in scratched gold lettering were the words: The Viscountess Northmoor, Fort Stirling, Dorset. Labels, long faded and turned crisp, were stuck on the lid but it was impossible to make them out now. She drew in her breath with pleasurable anticipation. This was the kind of treasure she was looking for. She rubbed away a layer of dust from the top. Her hands, she noticed, were filthy and her nails rimmed with black. Her palms felt caked and dry, and she rubbed them across her jeans to get the worst of the dirt off before she opened the trunk. She snapped the catches down, hoping that the central round lock had not been fastened for there was no sign of a key and she had a feeling she would never find it. But it opened easily enough and she pushed the lid back until it was supported by its leather hinges. Immediately underneath was a layer of shallow drawers, filled with colourful scraps. There were ties, both knitted and silk, bowties, handkerchiefs, a cummerbund, scarves, belts and fans. Pairs of long opera gloves were folded into clear plastic bags and she could see pearl buttons, kid, silk and velvet.

‘Bingo,’ she whispered. ‘Bingo.’

This was what she had been hoping to discover. Costumes. After all, she had found a setting, a stage furnished with Chippendale and ormolu, Meissen vases and Sèvres china, gilt candelabra and inlaid cabinetry, marble statuary and vast gold-framed oils, black-and-white marble and ancient polished floorboards. She ate dinner in a perfectly round room decorated with wallpaper printed in a factory that had been destroyed during the French Revolution, and after dinner she sat back on a soft sagging sofa before an Adam fireplace, John’s spaniel snoozing at her feet, and read books from the library that no one had touched for a century or longer. But occasionally the art director in her felt there was something missing. Where were the clothes? She wondered what had happened to the silk gowns, the lace and velvet worn by the women in the portraits around the house. Passed on until they fell to pieces, she supposed. It was understandable that the Regency muslins and Tudor bodices hadn’t survived, but in the photographs from the last century were opulent furs, smart frocks, evening dresses, large-shouldered tweed coats, chunky black heels, snakeskin handbags and hats of all varieties. A snap of John’s great-grandmother showed her in a drop-waist dress with a pleated skirt, a long cardigan, a rose corsage pinned to a string of pearls that dangled past her waist, and a tight-fitting cloche hat over her fashionably shingled hair. Vintage twenties clothes.

She felt a hunger for them, her fingertips tingling with a desire to stroke the fabrics and furs she could see everywhere but not touch.

‘They’re bound to be about. We never throw anything away,’ John had told her idly one day, ‘and there’s been a distinct lack of daughters in my family.’

The comment had taken root in her mind. The clothes must be here somewhere, packed away or left in a forgotten wardrobe to rot gently on their hangers. She longed to find them. She couldn’t help imagining how she would style some skinny, high-cheekboned models and where she would place them in the house to the best effect. She wondered if she could stage a play or an opera in the garden, and use the real clothes as her costumes.

Calm down, she told herself firmly. You’re racing ahead of yourself. Besides, John would never allow it.

Once he’d seemed to like her ideas for enlivening the place, and opening it up. But she was realising now that he’d never taken any of them seriously.

She pulled out the drawers and put them on the floor. Now she could see what lay within: piles of clothes neatly folded. She began to look through them reverently. They’d been put away with care – she didn’t want to disturb them unnecessarily. The colours and fabrics were not twenties or thirties, but sixties and seventies: yellows, purples and greens; short-sleeved knits, A-line skirts, paisley and zigzags and bold prints. They must have belonged to John’s mother – she was surely the only woman living here then. Delilah’s mouth watered. She had hoped for something older, but this was just the start. She would enjoy these too. Perhaps she’d find some treasures, some designer originals. At the bottom she saw some weighty looking dark cloth, folded so that she could not see what it was. She pulled it up and out of the trunk, trying not to disrupt the layers above it, and then she could see it was a coat in heavy black wool, double-breasted

with large black buttons and, by the looks of it, short. It would sit just above the knee, she reckoned. The reason it seemed so bulky was that inside was a matching dress, also black but edged with white around the scooped neckline. It was beautifully made, with perfect seams and a silk lining. The label was not one she recognised but the quality was evident.

Gorgeous, thought Delilah. So elegant.

She shook the garments out and sniffed. They smelled of time and dust, of wool left to age in the dark. It was one of her favourite scents. As a girl, she’d thrilled to that slightly bitter aroma in the old dress shop where the eccentrically dressed owner, a woman with wild grey hair, sat sewing silently as Delilah burrowed into the heaps of abandoned coats or the racks of evening frocks. She examined the dress and coat, and wondered if they had indeed belonged to John’s mother, whose face she only knew from the watercolour portrait in the drawing room and the few photographs scattered about the house in silver frames. The photographs showed a young woman, impossibly slender, in the fashions of the late sixties and early seventies, with backcombed dark hair and large eyes emphasised by a swoop of black eyeliner and false lashes. Delilah smoothed her hand over the fabric, remembering the strikingly pretty face, its pale skin and elfin features dominated by those huge eyes. She’d been struck by the look of vulnerability in them, and the slight awkwardness in the way the woman faced the camera. How strange to be touching something that John’s mother wore all those years ago. How could she have known that one day her son’s wife would stroke this dress and think about her?

I wonder what happened to her, Delilah thought. She knew that John’s mother had died when he was a boy, but he’d never told her more than that. Sometimes, when she looked at the photograph that showed John as a small child and his mother in a coat and big sunglasses clasping his hand tightly, she felt the urge to know what the woman was thinking as she gazed impassively into the camera, shielded by her glasses. But there was no way of knowing now.

The coat and dress were on the small side, as vintage garments often were, but Delilah had a feeling that they might fit her. On impulse, she jumped up, kicked off her Converse and quickly shed her jumper and jeans, then unzipped the dress’s under-arm fastening and, pushing her arms into the cool silk interior, began to snake her way into it.

She feared breaking the seams but she managed to wiggle herself until her head and arms were free and she could slide the dress down over her hips. When she’d pulled the zip up, the dress was snug but it did fit, just. She wished she could see it but there was no mirror up in the attic. As she’d suspected, the dress fell just to the knee and she imagined what kind of shoes might be worn with it. kitten-heeled winklepickers, perhaps. No, that didn’t feel right. This dress came from an era of square heels and toes, stacked heels . . . Boots, perhaps? Long black boots that hugged the calves and came up the knee. Laced. Maybe . . . Delilah picked up the coat and felt the weight. Good quality. She slid her arms into it. The sleeves were tight but otherwise it fitted well, falling to the exact length of the dress. Lovely . . . It was old but it still felt stylish, almost fresh. She spun round. Perhaps she could wear this to something, a lunch or a trip to town.

She put her hands into the pockets and at once felt something under the fingers of her right hand. She grasped it and pulled it out. It was the remains of a flower, something that once had been pale – white or pink – though it was now crisp and brown. As she touched it, it crumbled under her fingers, the green-grey stalk falling apart, dropping to the ground and disappearing between a gap in the boards.

As she stared at the dusty remnants, a chill coursed through her body and a strong sense of sadness washed over her. She brushed the flower from her hands as fast as she could, gripped suddenly by a black sensation that seemed to engulf her. She wanted to get the clothes off as fast she could. The idea of wearing them to anything at all seemed absurd. They were freighted with something unpleasant, chilling, something that wanted to drag her down into a dark and fearful place. She struggled out of the coat, letting it drop to the floor despite the thick dust there, and then wrestled for a few moments to get the dress up and over her head, hearing her breath coming in short, almost panicked bursts as she grew increasingly desperate to be free of it. Then it slid up and off, releasing her.

She stared at the abandoned garments, astonished at the depth of feeling that had just possessed her. Shivering in the cool attic air, she realised she was wearing just her underwear. The clothes lay in a black puddle on the floor, the arms of the coat splayed out as though silently requesting an embrace.

‘Delilah!’ The voice from the bottom of the attic staircase pierced the air.

She jumped violently, then shivered. John. It was all right. ‘Up here!’ she called back, her voice surprisingly normal.

‘Lunch is ready.’

‘I’ll be right there!’ She shivered again, and reached for her clothes. When she was dressed, she picked up the coat and dress, folded them hastily and put them back into the trunk. She slotted the drawers back into place and closed the lid.

I’ll come and look at the other things later, she promised herself, though she felt uncertain if she would want to come back alone. Shaking off the last remnant of the nasty black feeling, she headed for the stairs and the normality of lunch with John in the round dining room.


Excerpted from The Winter Folly by Lulu Taylor. Copyright © 2013 by Lulu Taylor.
First published in electronic form 2013 by Pan Books. First published in paperback 2014 by Pan Books, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Mr Foote’s Other Leg by Ian Kelly – Extract

Mr Foote's Other Leg

A SHORT CURTAIN SPEECH FROM THE AUTHOR AT THE FOOTLIGHTS

‘I have nothing against your right leg . . . the trouble is, neither have you.’
Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, The Tarzan Sketch

Foote had two legs to begin with. He was born with the full set and may have been buried with both when he was interred, clandestinely and at night as it turned out, in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey. Well-to-do amputees of the Georgian era were sometimes reunited with their long-lost limbs, especially embalmed by surgeons for the purpose so that they might meet their Maker with full symmetry, if not with grace. It was a similarly literalist view of the afterlife that had inspired Westminster Abbey in the eighteenth century to start reuniting in death the celebrated writers and actors of the age. They were shunted together in an area soon dubbed ‘Poets’ Corner’, as if to add to the country’s cavalcade of kings a classical pantheon of nation-builders. Or simply for a hellishly convivial afterlife.

The one-legged comedian Samuel Foote was smuggled as close to Poets’ Corner as his friends dared. But his burial was a hushed and hugger-mugger affair. By 1776 Foote’s name may have been one of the most celebrated in the English-speaking world, but by the time of his death in late 1777 he was more notorious than famous. He died only months after the conclusion of two of the most scandalous trials of the eighteenth century, in both of which he played major roles and in one of which he faced a charge of ‘sodomitical assault’. This is why you may not have heard of him. Like Oscar Wilde a century later – another dandywit and epigrammatist-playwright ruined by an accusation of homosexuality – Foote’s posthumous reputation was destroyed by slur and prejudice. Unlike Wilde, though, Foote had initially been supported by the establishment, even by the King. All support vanished, however, in the wake of his last, disastrous performances at the Haymarket and his sudden death. ‘He sacrific’d friends and foes to a joke,’ David Garrick wrote to Lady Spencer, in explanation of his absence from Foote’s funeral, ‘& so has dy’d very little regretted even by his nearest acquaintance.’1 More memorably, Henry Fielding had sneered that Foote died ‘pissed upon with Scorn and Contempt’, and Sheridan was pithier yet: ‘He could never show his face again – nor did he.’

The career that ended in notoriety had in effect begun there too. Long before he wrote comedies, Foote had come to the attention of the Georgian public as a crime-writer, the chronicler of a violent murder within his own family. The crime he wrote about connects the ghoulish business of anatomizing criminals in the eighteenth century and the later interest in Foote’s own anatomy, and more widely in the bodies of celebrities themselves: such that, bizarre to relate, the sources for this book include volumes still bound in human skin of one the protagonists (a sentence I feel unlikely ever to have cause to write again): the skin of a murderer who was hanged and dissected for his crimes.2 Crime and criminal trials being the other theatrical sideshow to the birth of modern metropolitan culture, perhaps it was to be expected that Samuel Foote had been a lead player in those too.

Comedy, as they say, is all about pain.

Pro’leg/omenon. The first questions asked of authors are regularly the most pertinent.

Was ‘Foote’ Samuel’s real name, or was this a stage-name in reference to his leg amputation? It was real. He suffered plenty of jokes about it after, as Dr Johnson put it, ‘the Depeditation of Mr Foote’.

Was the Tarzan Sketch, performed by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, based on the story of Samuel Foote? Probably so. For anyone who has missed this comedy classic, put down this book – temporarily – and have your life ‘improved by laughter’, as Foote once put it. There’s always YouTube. Pete and Dud knew the works of Samuel Foote and the singular physicality at the core of many of his later stage routines. Foote cast himself a number of times in scenes in which ‘two legs would be considered the minimum requirement’, and the sketch, which originated at Cambridge in a 1960 undergraduate Footlights revue when Pete was studying eighteenth-century French drama, indubitably has as its ancestor Samuel Foote. Did Foote really escape through the trap-door of the Haymarket after giving his shocked audience a Wilkesian rodomontade on liberty and sexual freedom, then attempt to run away to France but die in Dover, waiting for the ferry? (A story that gave me my first laugh at Foote’s expense, as told to me by a fellow actor long into his anecdotage.) No. The real story is rather better, in its way, more tragic and more political. The descent of Foote’s myth, though, via the lore of old actors is one triumph of oral history over recondite fact, and is not the less telling of the style and reputation of the man for being more darn than sock.

Why should a man once famous enough to be represented by a simple icon – a foot – be forgotten now? A coiner of comedies for one-legged actors and the original celebrity-impressionist, Foote must own some of the authorship of his own obscurity. ‘Few things are as fleeting as a joker’s reputation,’ wrote one early chronicler of Foote, ‘the jest may survive, but the jester is usually forgotten’; and an impressionist’s reputation falls faster than any into oblivion because it relies on the celebrity of the victims as much as the impersonator. Added to this, Foote’s famous name became a whispered one in the immediate aftermath of his scandal-palled death. Neither, it should be said, are his plays very funny any more. His thirty-odd comedy ‘afterpieces’ relied heavily on the inwit of a celebrity-impressionist rather than writerly skills per se and only a few remained popular into the nineteenth century. If his ribaldry sings out still in the names of his creations – Sir Archy McSarcasm, the priapic Harry Humper or one-legged Sir Luke Limp – their lines, regrettably, now ring hollow. So relax. To trawl through the works of Samuel Foote would do him, me and you poor service: to write about comedy, as Foote allowed, is tougher even than making people laugh.

This is instead a cyclorama of mid-eighteenth-century London viewed from the unique vantage point of a one-legged master of ceremonies, a man of breathtakingly catholic experience and larrikin good humour; a tale told by an actor. The masks over the proscenium arch, however, are not so much comedy and tragedy as comedy and crime – the twin fascinators of eighteenth-century discourse and intrinsic to the story of Foote. How Samuel Foote lost his leg and thereby gained a royal licence for a theatre – one of only three such Theatres Royal in the whole history of the London stage – is one subject of his play. The supporting cast of friends – from Dr Johnson, David Garrick, Henry Fielding, Joshua Reynolds and Benjamin Franklin to John Hunter, the Duchess of Kingston and everyone from Peg Woffington to George III – lend a certain metropolitan ´elan to this panorama of Theatreland:

Samuel Foote’s scapegrace London on the cusp of modernity. How a man of such singular anatomy could be at the centre of one of the most sensational buggery trials in British history – a subject of hilarious conjecture at the time, wiping the American Declaration of Independence off the London papers for many months – turns out to be a story less of perplexing balance than of shocking brutality and prejudice. It is also viewed afresh here through the recently discovered and uncomfortably explicit first-hand trial records, and new evidence that, in one instance, justice may have been thwarted by greater powers. How Foote came to be on trial in Westminster Hall straight after the errant Duchess of Kingston had been arraigned in the same building in a grand state trial for bigamy is a tale of further legal prejudice and sexual intrigue. It has, of course, some resonance with the scandal that ended Oscar Wilde’s career, though Foote’s story turns out to be tellingly different, not least in the establishment’s reaction to his trial. Yet in key regards he is indeed ‘the Oscar Wilde of the eighteenth century’, as he is sometimes called: with his fame, personality and tragic trajectory illuminating uncomfortable truths about his era and his posthumous allure inextricably linked to his downfall. Instead it is the question of why Londoners should turn their attention to scandal, celebrity and laughter through 1776, when they might have paid closer attention to events in America, that begs our attention as well as forging both backdrop and cacophonous noises-off to Foote’s tragi-comedy. Appropriately enough then this is the story of the man who coined the phrase ‘Tea Party’ – a rallying cry at Boston harbour in 1773 – though Foote used it as an irreverent circumvention of the London censors: he sold tickets for tea, and added a scurrilous satire on the side. So now, finally, he is having the last laugh, as the unexpected godfather of an American reactionary movement, which, given his other reputation as sexual deviant and reckless satirist, would surely give him cause to smirk.

This is not, therefore, a literary biography in the usual sense, but an exploration of a myth of personality, Samuel Foote’s, in an age when the idea was born and personal narratives of self-invention were first floated on the marketplace of fame as going concerns. It is a story of comedy and criminality, of rakes and revolutions, lowlifes and high art, cottaging and kings, and of the brave new world of London: the world’s original anonymous metropolis. Foote used his off-stage dramas, in prescient style, to publicize himself. Consequently his centre-stage role in the first perfect media storm has some claim to be the proper prologue to modern celebrity and therefore, in a sense, to modernity. But beyond that, we who please to live and live to please, as Dr Johnson remarked, have also the simple benediction of storytelling, and Foote’s is a bloody good story to tell. And it has been lost only for reasons that are indeed themselves worth telling.

Most jokes in this book are not Foote’s, though many are original to the eighteenth century. Any errors or lack of taste are generally mine.

Scenes from an actor’s life

COFFEE-HOUSE COMEDIAN

“It is the faculty of laughter alone that distinguishes Man from all other creatures”
Joseph Addison, coffee-house wit

Leicester Fields, London, 1741. The two feet that emerge from the sedan chair, expensively shod in buckled shoes, hit the gravel and sea-coal ash of the square, most likely closely followed by a cane. These feet, and the short legs above them, are those of a young man who does not need to be carried the half-mile from the Fleet prison – via Temple Bar and across the pebbles of Covent Garden piazza, up Long Acre towards Panton Street – though perhaps his costly buckled shoes do.

Dandily attired in lace and pea-green silk, the young law student, newly released from his second spell in gaol, was pointed at by those who noted him – the royal servants, hawkers and artisans who frequented Leicester Fields. But this was not for reasons of his dress. Samuel Foote, twenty-one-year-old youngest son of a Truro lawyer and a Worcestershire heiress, was notorious in London neither for his dress sense, eye-catching though it was, nor his unusual lineage. Rather he was notorious, all but instantly in March 1741, for his writings, his profiting by them and for his debts.

Sam encouraged his fellow London law-students to introduce him around the West End as ‘the young Gentleman whose uncle has been hanged for the murder of his brother’, a presentation that, it was said, ‘had great success and caused much amusement’.2 Crime pays, in terms of urban notoriety. It pays especially well if a crime links troubling themes in revolutionary times, offering a story such as Foote’s newly published account of his uncle’s murder. The crimes he wrote about in his bestselling Genuine Account (two editions in March and April 1741) describe the first circle of his notoriety. They were crimes of vicious animosity between brothers – Sam’s uncles – and across declensions of class: a story of an interminable law case involving altered codicils, entails upon estates and abusive marriages. It was a story about land, sex, class, murder, dissections and insanity, and it was set against a naval backdrop, aboard a hulking man-o’-war at sea. Little wonder, then, that young Sam Foote’s account, as nephew and heir to murderer and murderee, outsold the sheet-music for the newly composed ‘Rule, Britannia’.3 Foote’s story was similarly rousing and seasalted, and addressed equally contemporary anxieties of what constituted Britishness, manliness, honour and identity. It also paid just well enough to keep him, erratically, out of debtors’ prison through his very early twenties. Just.

The twin nexi of Foote’s London, a city on the cusp of modernity that he came to know in the early 1740s when he, too, was just on the edge of adulthood, were the Fleet prison on what is now Farringdon Street, and Leicester Fields, later Square, where he took lodgings when and if he could afford them. The story of his crime bestseller, which rescued him from debt, and of his two abodes set the scene for the opening of his bizarre and unique career, which straddled notoriety and celebrity, showbusiness and crime, respectable fashionability and life beyond the Pale. It could only have happened in London.

§

Foote had first used his lodgings in Panton Street, just off Leicester Fields, when he was an Oxford undergraduate, but he had them full-time from 1741 onwards and lived there when he was not in prison, which he was, twice, over the course of that year. One of the most vibrant areas of mid-eighteenth-century London, Leicester Fields was an area in almost constant flux. The heir to the throne, Frederick, Prince of Wales, had turned Leicester House, on the north side of what would become the square, into a royal residence, but artists and writers could still afford to live in the area around it. John Gay had worked in a drapery yards to the south in New Exchange, by the Royal Mews – now Trafalgar Square – before he hit the big time with The Beggar’s Opera, a spectacular commercial success that was still playing in London when Foote arrived. William Hogarth was working on sketches that year for what would become his Marriage a` la Mode sequence of paintings in studios on the west side of the Fields, in sight of Foote’s lodgings. Five minutes away by sedan chair was Bow Street. Here Henry Fielding was busy attacking the government in his Grub Street Journal, presiding later as magistrate from his own front room, arraigning, among other miscreants, the itinerant ne’er-do-well Giacomo Casanova while simultaneously working on drafts of Shamela and later Tom Jones. Bow Street was also where the actors Charles Macklin, David Garrick and Peg Woffington – the original Polly Peachum in the Dublin production of The Beggar’s Opera – all had lodgings. It was an area for artists and writers of every school, for newcomers to London, for those who sought the oxygen of creativity and attention even in the fug of a malodorous city.

The young Cornishman was very quickly taken up by Covent Garden society. He was instantly conspicuous, soon enough notorious, and he was dazzlingly funny. Even in an age that had yet to discover minimalism in men’s fashion, Foote stood out as a miniature peacock. What he lacked in physical grace – he was said to have a formless face and low-slung gait – he made up for with his ebullient presence, his many voices and his clothes. He owned, for instance, one suit in ‘birds eye orange’ lined with pea-green satin, one of spotted velvet, another of ‘striped strawberry coloured corded silk with spangl’d buttons’ and, eccentrically, a whole suit made entirely of brown beaver.4 So attired, he soon became recognized around Covent Garden, as well one might. Descriptions of the young blade as ‘one of the most distinguished wits who frequented the coffee-houses’5 rarely fail to mention that he was also ‘one of the greatest of the beaux even in those days of general overdress’. Those who first met him were almost invariably bowled over, even if, as was the case with Samuel Johnson, they had determined beforehand to disapprove because of his fast-acquired reputation as a reprobate.

The first time I ever was in company with Foote [as Johnson recalled of this period] having no good opinion of the fellow, I was resolved not to be pleased, and it is very difficult to please a man against his will. I went on eating my dinner pretty sullenly, affecting for a long time not to mind him, but the dog was so very comical, that I was obliged to lay down my knife and fork and throw myself back in my chair and fairly laugh it out. No sir, there was no avoiding it: the fellow was irresistible.6

Foote was, according to Dr Johnson, a one-off. Where James Boswell, who knew Foote slightly later, was always equivocal, in awe of Foote’s wit but shocked by his insouciant amorality, Johnson merely observed that he was funny: ‘Foote has the greatest range for his wit,’ the doctor remarked simply, ‘he never lets truth stand between him and jest, though he is sometimes mighty coarse.’7 Later he claimed, ‘He has no principles and is governed neither by good manners nor discretion and very little by affection. But for a broad laugh,’ and here the doctor would smile at recollection of it, ‘I must confess the scoundrel has no fellow.’8

A great capital is a constellation of friendships as well as ideas, and London, as Foote discovered it, afforded an extraordinary array of both, all within easy access of his occasional Leicester Fields home. For a witty and attention-seeking young man, one of mixed fortune and fissured fame, as he would prove to be, it was easy to establish himself in a city that seemed as open to new people as it was to new ideas, a city stretched, challenged and enlivened by waves of ambitious new immigrants. The cast list of those who came, and prospered, and knew Foote is still recognizable in part. They enter the stage haphazardly over Foote’s first months and years as a young man about town, sometimes walking centre-stage to greet him, sometimes merely walking past the stagecloth, brief early cameos that may or may not lead to further life in Foote’s drama.

His Panton Street lodgings were between an alley where Jonathan Swift had once cowered from gangs of ruffians and the studios of portraitist Thomas Hudson and his new apprentice, Joshua Reynolds. West Country boys both, new to London and to adult life, Reynolds and Foote would become firm friends. Foote was also soon spending time with the half-French jeweller based in Covent Garden, Lambert Lacam; he died young and was buried with a large enamel of his wife painted by another of Foote’s drinking partners of these years, the Irish miniaturist Nathaniel Hone.9 James Boswell would later come from Scotland to lodge in Downing Square – now Street – at that time an unprepossessing backwater of Whitehall and a cul-de-sac. His introduction to Foote came via Garrick and Johnson, Lichfield men both, and the Ulsterman Charles Macklin, who met Foote at Tom’s coffee-house on Russell Street. Benjamin Franklin took lodgings on his return from America in Craven Street and met up with Boswell and later Foote every other Thursday at Davies’s bookstore, below Tom’s, to ‘enjoy literary conversation’.10 Boswell’s fellow Scots, the Hunter brothers, John and William, had anatomy practices in Leicester Fields and became known to Foote through Reynolds. The Hunters soon moved their business – a practice combining theatre, freak-show and medical demonstration – to Great Windmill Street and a building that serves dankly still as the Lyric Theatre’s dressing rooms. Some came to London to make their fortunes, some arrived with them, but for those with means, and a taste for novelty and argument, Leicester Fields and Covent Garden provided a scene of expectation and wonder, a blurring of class delineations and upbringing in a fervent search for the new. ‘Wine and punch on the table,’ Boswell describes the convivial scene of Foote’s London, ‘some of us smoking pipes . . . [and] a side-board with Welsh rabbits [sic] and apple puffs, porter and beer; our reckoning about eighteen pence a head,’ such that Johnson could make the reasonable assertion, of the same occasion, that ‘when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life, for there is in London all that Life can afford’. Or so it seemed to its many new inhabitants in the mid-eighteenth century and certainly to the young Cornishman Sam Foote.

When two enterprising contemporaries took it upon themselves to walk all the way around London, keeping countryside in view at all times, it took them seven hours.11 The largest city in the world, and indisputably its richest, was still small enough to be dominated by personalities who became known by sight and voice, not through media. Most Londoners knew exactly what members of the royal family looked like, as well as famous actresses and politicians or physically striking men like Dr Johnson or John Wilkes or, soon enough, Samuel Foote, pointed out on the street as the infamous author of the Genuine Account. People saw their ‘personalities’ on the street and in person – it was one of the principal pleasures of London, an open, homosocial and surprisingly pedestrian city. They saw them not as we do, in frames and in oils, but in all their human and voluble peculiarity. They saw them often through the smirched glass of sedan chairs – three hundred of which were available to hire daily from the chair-ranks at St James’s Palace – but just as likely walking in the parks, at church or, of course, at the theatre. The age that gave us, via Dr Johnson, the word ‘clubbable’ was perforce an age when London felt small enough to be just that: a club – and one not just for men but for the larger-than-life female personalities of the day: actresses like Kitty Clive and Peg Woffington, singers like Susannah Cibber, courtesans like Kitty Fisher, all of whom sat for Reynolds and all of whom would become friends or close enemies of Foote. The famous and infamous of London rubbed shoulders closely and frequently, even more so than might be the case for those same coteries today.

So, it was apt that London should give the world its first ‘celebrity-impressionist’ – a man who initially made his name, those first few years in London, through a singular skill honed at his parents’ table in Truro and his school in Worcester: a simple but devastatingly accurate talent for mimicry. Sam Foote was first known about town for his gifts as a coffee-house comedian, unabashed and unashamed to be introduced as the nephew of ‘the uncle who has been hanged’12 and able to ‘take off ’ the great names and famous voices of a famously voluble age. His skill was said to be second to none. He watched people, then reproduced their mannerisms and voices instantly. It was said he could fool a tapster after hearing one order of drinks from a new acquaintance. Such a skill has probably always been prized. It found a new audience, and a new possibility as a career of sorts, in a city that was self-referential, and to some extent self-parodying; a city suddenly obsessed with personality and fame. His fearlessness was soon legendary, too, as he lampooned and caricatured people to their faces. Nearly all the meaning, and certainly most of the hilarity of this, is lost to us. But the moment is signal, historically, in the story of London. Samuel Foote was soon celebrated around the West End not just as the overdressed author of a crime bestseller, but as the funniest and wittiest man in town, and the most gifted imitator of the famous – in the first city and age when such a thing might be possible. A minor claim to fame, maybe, except that it spoke, too, of the first modern metropolis, its signal and prescient interest in ‘personality’ and the importance of satire in understanding the British. Foote, debt-ridden law student and briefly gaolbird, first came to the notice of Georgian Londoners by impersonating the London famous in West End coffee-houses.

§

Just five minutes east of his Panton Street lodgings, around the piazza of Covent Garden, the young Cornishman soon discovered the most fashionable of London’s celebrated coffee-houses. The once grandiose piazza homes of aristocrats had been converted, variously, into taverns, brothels, bagnios and shops, and there were rooms to rent up once-grand staircases for the purposes that often befall a neighbourhood heading rapidly downhill. An image of Samuel setting foot in Covent Garden is provided by his later friend and biographer, William Cooke:

In this early part of his life he was what the world called a fine gentleman: and in his morning rambles from the [Leicester] fields towards Covent Garden he exhibited a full dress suit, bag wig . . . sword, muff, rings, &c . . . He was fond of dress to the last; but his taste in this was not so correct: he was seldom wholly uniform; and took snuff in such quantities, as often rendered him a very slovenly beau. He lived much in taverns, and at public places, in this early part of his life.13

Covent Garden was where Foote saw his first professional actors. Rehearsals at the two Theatres Royal were signalled daily by a drum, beaten around the piazza to round up the two companies from their digs or coffee-drinking. He could gawp at the great names of the day as they traipsed over the pebbled market square past fruit and flower stalls, doffing hats or curtsying, as appropriate, to the crowds, interrupted from whatever distractions of the piazza they had been enjoying till their knell called them to work.

Young Foote had only to walk across the piazza from west to east, past this actorly roll-call, to reach the coffee-houses: Bedford’s, Button’s, Tom’s and Will’s were all on Russell Street, the thoroughfare from the piazza to Drury Lane that is, in a sense, the heart of Theatreland. In 1741 the coffee-houses, even Lloyd’s and Child’s in the City, were still open to anyone who could buy coffee, talk well and read deeply. They were not yet private clubs. William Cooke later wrote that Sam was seen ‘pro forma’14 at the Temple and the Inns of Court at this time and even acquired ‘handsome chambers’ there. But there is no record of him as a lawyer. He spent his days and nights instead in Covent Garden’s more easterly coffee-houses, for it was here that new, more artistic and literary reputations were being made. And it is here, consequently, that he first enters the record of London wits.

Of the three great coffee-houses of Russell Street, Tom’s had Foote’s custom at first. It was a seat of the new English radicalism, but also of literary aspiration. Like Will’s, where Dryden wrote, Tom’s was a first-floor suite of rooms above a print- and bookshop. The entrance was at 17 Russell Street. The original Tom – Thomas West – had thrown himself from the upper window ‘in a delirium’15 nineteen years earlier, but the name had stuck, along with the association of fervid partying, disputation and radicalism. The bookseller that traded downstairs, Lewis’s, published Alexander Pope, which was convenient, as Pope wrote and drank his coffee in Tom’s above. Mainly, however, Tom’s came alive at night. One foreign writer observed: ‘The best company generally go to Tom’s and Will’s coffee-houses, where there is the best conversation til midnight. Here you will see [aristocrats] sitting familiarly and talking with freedom . . . and a stranger tastes with pleasure the universal liberty . . . of the English.’

At Tom’s, as at all the major coffee-houses, there were also newspapers, ‘not only all the foreign prints but the English ones . . . besides papers of morality and party dispute’.16 Eventually Tom’s had to be subdivided into a rambunctious cafe´ – alive with debate and argument and laughter – and a quieter room for readers and for perusal of a growing lending library of books and periodicals. This latter had a subscription book, which was used well into the nineteenth century and provides some insight into the bookishness of Foote’s coffee-addict chums. Arthur Murphy, another lawyer-cum-theatrical, signed next to Foote in the subscription book for newspapers, as did David Garrick and Samuel Johnson. There were bankers and even scions of dukedoms signing too; the rakehell Earl Percy, friend of Casanova, along with George Colman, the dramatist, the book-loving Polish ambassador and Thomas Paine.17 A young aristocrat called Francis ‘Frank’ Delaval signed there too, borrowing play scripts. This fast-living and loud-laughing Northumbrian would become one of Foote’s closest friends.

It was a convivial meeting place. One extant bar tab from this period covers a generous round of ‘46 dishes of chocolate and coffee’ to a total of £1 3s. to which the sweet-toothed literati had added an order of ‘34 jelleys [sic] and biscuits at 2s. 3d. extra’. It is unclear who paid. There was a large snuff box, which Dryden had owned, in the middle of the upper room. A pinch of communal snuff was the reward for a tale well told, an argument won or a quip well stropped. This ‘snuff of glory’ soon became the regular prize of Sam Foote. It was the only free item. Beyond one’s first cup of coffee – served gratis with the penny entry fee – everything at Tom’s cost.

But it was the Bedford that soon became Foote’s favoured coffee-house. It was the pre-eminent establishment in a city that boasted at the time at least five hundred coffee-houses18 but, as Henry Fielding quipped, the Bedford was best known to ‘those Gentlemen to whom Beds are unknown’.19 Frequenters of this ‘emporia of wit’20 included William Hogarth – it seems he and Foote met there – the actors Macklin and Murphy, and writers and poets, like William Collins, Alexander Pope and Thomas Sheridan, when he was not in Dublin. Even the diarist Horace Walpole, not usually a man for crowds, was often there. Thomas Arne, Drury Lane’s resident composer, met Foote in Bedford’s too, dressed always in velvet, even in the dog-days of 1741’s sticky summer. Newly famous for ‘Rule, Britannia’, Arne was fighting in the courts that summer for his copyrights in a landmark case, convincing other authors, Foote soon included, that they had been sold short in publishing deals. The fervid, sociable atmosphere of the coffee-houses became the essential fuel for Samuel Foote’s talents and his fame.

The Bedford, increasingly, was where Foote was to be found every day, ignoring the law studies that supposedly had brought him to London in the first place, and spending money he could ill afford. It was on the piazza itself, on the corner of Russell Street, entered from the eastern side of the market through the arcades. If Lloyd’s, Jonathan’s, Child’s, Dolly’s Chop House and the Grecian spawned banks and insurance houses, newspapers and a Royal Society respectively, the Bedford, the Grecian, Tom’s and Button’s would also found London institutions. They were art salons, discussion shops of the Enlightenment. They were also the cradle of early book and comedy clubs, and, in the course of Foote’s story, the site of the first British drama school.

The Bedford served food late into the night for the post-theatre crowd. As such it has some claim to infamy as the first critics’ circle, the favoured haunt of professional theatre reviewers. One paper noted that the Bedford was ‘every day and night crowded with wits . . . jokes and bons mots are echoed from box to box’21 [the wooden seats]; ‘every branch of literature is examined, every performance of the theatre weighed’.22 It was said actors and playwrights at Drury Lane and Covent Garden could ascertain the success or failure of their ventures within five minutes of entering the Bedford’s wainscoted rooms after the curtain had fallen on opening night. Only a Broadway opening and first-night party, these days, offers such alacrity of damnation. These men of letters and of the theatre (there were ladies too, but they were not respectable) could use the Bedford as their postal address. There were rooms to rent by hour or day. One carrel, or booth, was especially reserved for competitive punning, another for debate on natural sciences, a third exclusively for actors. As Foote arrived in London in 1741 the ‘eminent natural philosopher’ J. T. Desaguliers had moved from a carrel into an upstairs room to give lectures.23 The atmosphere, therefore, hung as thick with intellectual ambition as with tobacco smoke, and the wooden panelling did little to lessen the din of the raucous noise of the over-articulate. By late evening, the Bedford became the spill-on bar from the Green Rooms of both Theatres Royal, and this favoured haunt of the actors and actresses of Covent Garden and Drury Lane rang to the sound of singing as well as laughter: the first airings of Thomas Arne’s ‘A-Hunting We Will Go’, if not, for form’s sake, his new National Anthem, were heard there. And, intriguing to relate, the wainscoting featured ‘window soil-boxes’ lined with lead: they may have been window boxes in the usual sense but seem also to have been placed high above the piazza for gentlemen to relieve themselves, rather than offending the crowd below in the manner more usual to the age – a ‘London shower’, as it was termed. Foote’s first view, therefore, of the Fielding brothers, Davy Garrick, Thomas Sheridan or, less likely, Horace Walpole – the ‘finest wits and men of letters’ of the age – may well have revealed them, from the perspective of the piazza, availing themselves of the Bedford’s unusual facilities while whistling Dr Arne’s new ‘Rule, Britannia’.

The London Spy described the style of Foote’s new Bedford world:

like a swarm of rats in a ruinous cheese-store . . . some were scribbling, others talking; some were drinking coffee, some smoking, and some arguing; the whole place stank of tobacco like the cabin of a barge . . . long clay pipes, a little fire on the hearth, and over it a huge coffee-pot . . . and . . . a parliamentary ordinance against drinking and the use of bad language. The walls were decorated with gilt frames much as a smithy is decorated with horseshoes. In the frames were rarities; phials of a yellowish elixir, favourite pills and hair-tonics, packets of snuff, tooth-powder made of coffee-grounds, caramels and cough lozenges . . . had not my friend told me that he had brought me to a coffee-house, I would have regarded the place as cabinet of curiosities or as [a fair ground].24

On to this peculiar coffee-spattered stage stepped young Foote. He made it an art form to enter a room well. One Dr Barrowby happened to be there the very first time ‘Sammy’ Foote came in. He spoke of Foote always afterwards as a ‘young man of extraordinary talents’, and seems to have been one of those many who wanted to believe that behind Foote’s carapace of reckless wit and dandy disdain hid a warmth to be discerned by the elect. As another wrote, Foote was ‘a man who . . . possesses a real fund of feeling’.25 Dr Barrowby’s account of Foote’s de´but at the Bedford, however, is more of mask than man. Foote, already a far more dandified character than his Truro mother might have imagined, thus made his first Bedford entrance up the stairs from the piazza:

He came into the room, dressed out in a frock suit of green and silver lace with bag-wig, sword, bouquet, and ruffles, and immediately joined the critical circle of the upper end of the room. He soon boldly entered into the conversation, and by the brilliancy of his wit, the justness of his remarks, and the unembarrassed freedom of his manners, attracted the general notice. The buzz of the room went round:

‘Who is he? Whence comes he?!’

etc which nobody could answer; until, a carriage stopping at the door to take him to the assembly of a lady of fashion, and they learned from the servants that his name was Foote, that he was a young Gentleman of Family and of Fortune.26

The style is recognizable from his later stage entrances. The servants, it seems, were all primed to speak their parts and the carriage was hired to go nowhere.

The comedic young law student who entertained the coffeehouse crowd soon left a trail of anecdotes in his wake. Some were recorded eventually by his exegete, Cooke, and published as his Bons Mots. Others were chronicled by diarists and letter-writers. Whimsy as much as wit to the modern ear, their renown sprang equally from the speed of Foote’s response as from his wordplay and his impersonations. But if Foote has an early claim to be ‘the Oscar Wilde of the eighteenth century’, it is because, long before he wrote a play or, indeed, worked on a professional stage, he was already famous, as the funniest man in London. As instance, one late night at the Bedford one of the theatre crowd took issue with Foote on the business of personal satire:

‘Why, what would you have?’ exclaimed Foote, ‘of course I take all my friends off, but I use them no worse than myself, I take myself off.’

‘Gadso! Now that I should like to see,’ said the other, whereupon Foote took up his hat, and left. The room fell about laughing, and the story spread the faster as Foote did not return.

On an actress with a dubious past who was said to have married happily by the expedient of telling her husband beforehand of all her previous lovers, Foote remarked on her bravery to his companions at the Bedford:

What candour she must have had! What honesty! . . . and what an amazing memory!

On another occasion, Foote had become somewhat bored by a doctor who had had a yen to publish poems that he had inflicted, extempore, upon the Bedford group. The doctor complained he hadn’t had time to get to a publisher as he had ‘so many irons in the fire’. Foote fired back:

Take my advice, dear Doctor, and put your poems where your irons are.27

His wit turned often on frank sexual knowingness. Covent Garden Magazine published one Foote retort from this period when the conversation at the Bedford had turned to the vibrating effect of being driven in hired carriages over the cobbled streets of London and ‘a Gentleman observed that riding in a hackney coach always gave him an e . . . . . . n [erection]’. ‘Egad,’ said Foote, ‘never let your wife know that or she will insist upon your never hiring but keeping a carriage.’28

And so, again, the Bedford rang with laughter, heard even, it was said, on the far side of the piazza, attracting further drinkers and roisterers to admire the celebrated Mr Foote.

Coffee-houses have their unique place in the history of what would later be termed the Enlightenment, and the coffee-house comic Samuel Foote has his place in this too. As Dr Johnson noted, the coffee-houses ‘had a perceptible influence on ‘the conversation of the time’; they ‘taught the frolic and the gay to unite merriment with decency and argument . . . effects which they could never wholly lose’. It was only in coffee-houses in London, as in Paris or Venice, that all classes might find a venue for sociability. To be sure the clientele was drawn from what the French called honˆetes gens – a literate and genteel class of mainly men – but in London the potential rough edges of different classes rubbing together were smoothed, most often, with comedy. Just as the theatre played to all at once, and had done, arguably, since the days of Shakespeare, so the coffee-house came to be a forum, too, where ideas from across all society might be aired. The point of the coffee-house was conversation, just as the point of theatre was dialogue. And all voices might be heard. Special privilege, however, was given to those who made people laugh. The discussion of the ideas, news and literature of the modern city marked a new stage in the growth of civility, the dawning, over coffee and hot chocolate, messy newsprint, lewd cartoons and tobacco, of something both dangerous and exciting: public opinion.

Coffee fuelled Foote’s first experience of live comedy and performance, but also his earliest foray into writing and his first taste of fame. The largest city in the world, with a population by 1740 of more than 650,000 and, according to contemporary statistician Malarchy Postlethwaite,29 as many as one million, may also have been the world’s most literate. Fourteen newspapers were published daily or tri-weekly in London and on any given day up to 20,000 papers circulated in the capital, many with serial readers in London’s coffee-houses.30 Even while Horace Walpole might rant over the ‘ridiculous rage of buying biographies’31 something about eighteenth-century London seems to have forged a companionate love of reading and gossiping about personalities in public: dramas unfolding in real time, often sexual morality tales or crime stories, to be savoured and salivated over. It is therefore reasonable to speculate that as many as a quarter of a million people had heard Samuel Foote’s name or read it within days of his account of the infamous 1741 murder of his uncle, before we even tally provincial coffee-houses and the longer-term circulation of crime-pamphlets printed to survive the thumbs of many more coffee-drinkers. It was quite a launch.

For Foote, therefore, the coffee-house was his first constituency, the site of his personal fame in London, and his wider renown in print as a crime writer. This is some of what guys his story so strongly in the fug of the Georgian coffee trade while making it conversely so very much a tale of now. Coffee-houses were reading rooms, news rooms and gossip halls all at once. They were the water-cooler of Georgian sociability, deciding what was fashionable, interesting or amusing. The rich life of London’s coffee-house Enlightenment – the exchange of ideas and the creation of a fervid challenging newspaper culture, uncensored by royal or government decree – has been cited as one reason our Enlightenment led to peculiarly British revolutions in science, industry, literature, in acting and sex even, a glorious if etiolated revolution through the long eighteenth century that was more political than is often allowed, but was accompanied by laughter and satire. London’s coffee-houses fed directly into the political life of the city, but also notably into its comic and theatrical cultures.

It was this ‘public sphere’ – the new fused world of political ideas, of coffee-house revolutions – that needed a new sort of comedy, a new sort of satire. Coffee-houses became the place where public opinion was formed, but also published. In turn they rejoiced in a sort of critical, satirical comedy that feels akin to modern political satire, to stand-up even, enacted live, over coffee, by the likes of young Sam Foote. The age that gave us the most scabrous and irreverent cartoons in the history of the medium – one signifier of new freedoms – gave us also a political satirist and impersonator in Foote. Rooted in pain, like the best comedy, fearless, which was his accidental position in life, Samuel Foote rounded his gifts with an ability to pen live cartoon sketches of ‘celebrities’ – in the spirit of Hogarth or of Rowlandson – drawn from the new city and brought to life, and ridicule, at the Bedford.

Life as a comedic coffee-house idler should not have been wildly expensive for a gentleman with a modest allowance and great expectations of inheritance, but Foote lived constantly beyond his means, falling repeatedly into debt. Eventually, of course, it landed him in prison. It was a pattern that had been set at Oxford in the few years he spent studying there. However, he found that debt would be the making of him, for it was because of the Fleet prison that Foote first turned to writing, and to the business of marketing his family’s notoriety in an arrestingly modern manner. ‘Iterum, iterum, iterumque’ (again and again and again) ran the legend on his carriage door years later when he would joke about his three terms of imprisonment for debt – twice in London and once in Oxford. By the time he was customizing his livery in London, a dazzlingly successful playwright and comedian, he could afford to be jocose about debt and his youthful fecklessness. But his spells in gaol, in 1740 and 1741, were as frightening as they were intended to be – wake-up calls to a young wastrel, eventually heeded and acted upon. In Sam Foote’s case, debtors’ prison scared him first into matrimony, and then into his first literary endeavours as a crime-writer.


Excerpted from Mr Foote’s Other Leg by Ian Kelly. Copyright © 2012 by Ian Kelly.
First published 2012 by Picador. First published in paperback 2013 by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
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The Defections by Hannah Michell – Extract

The Defections

1979

Mia was born the night the President was shot. It was the night of betrayals, her stepmother was accustomed to saying, and strange things had happened all over the city of Seoul, as though the day had signed its name in red ink. The President was shot by his own right- hand man, the Director of Intelligence. It had been the end of a long dictatorship, but that was never the point.

‘What happened to the President, it’s like what your father did to me,’ her stepmother said, pausing as she ran a blade across the chestnut shell in her fingers.

Her stepmother spoke of this betrayal sitting cross-legged on the hardwood floors, peeling persimmons or preparing root vegetables. Mia watched as the knife’s edge sank into her stepmother’s thumb but no blood seeped out. Later Mia mimicked the very same motion alone in the kitchen, to the detriment of her fingers, and came to believe her stepmother possessed powers of black magic.

Her stepmother would blink hard when describing Mia’s delivery – of how she was passed from doctor to nurse – as though the story’s passage hurt her throat. Mia was a tiny thing, pink and raw. They examined the flatness of her nose, the thin, narrow lines of her sunken eyes. These things they had come to expect from a newborn.

‘But it was your green eyes,’ she would add. ‘It was a reminder of the line crossed. Borders disobeyed.’

Bad luck befell everyone present in the delivery room at the time of her birth. The attending nurse lost her only son during a routine military exercise. The doctor contracted a rare heart disease from a patient. Her Appa had a stroke that left him paralysed and unable to speak. And Mia’s mother disappeared.

Or so the story went.

This was the version of her arrival to the world that she was spoon- fed when she first came to live with her stepmother at the age of five. Over the years, other variations of that fateful night in 1979 were told. Her stepmother preached about her charity in bringing Mia home – a baby left in a sack of pebbles by the Han River, the Christian life they led in taking in a child turned away from the orphanage. In other versions, she was described as a disposable rag doll of yellow hair and grey eyes, left at the bottom of Hooker Hill.

During these stories her Appa, who had not spoken for as long as Mia could remember, sat on the stone step leading to the courtyard, while his wife salted and rubbed chilli flakes into the cabbage to prepare the kimchi. He would gaze for hours at the dying Ginkgo tree in the garden. Mia knew he was listening from the way he turned scraps of newspaper between the fingers of his good hand, crumpling them at certain parts of her stepmother’s stories and then smoothing them out again over his knee at others. When they were alone, he would try to speak to her and nothing but a raspy croak would come out of his throat. He ripped out colorful propaganda campaigns from old magazines and put them in Mia’s hands. In his later years, when he found solace in painting, he would produce ghostly figurines moving across vast landscapes.

But this never gave Mia any clues about her mother, who was never mentioned in the house, and, out of sympathy for her father, she had refused to speak until her uncle had coaxed her out of her silence. She clutched at snippets of memory – the whiff of nutmeg in her mother’s hair, her heavy sighs when she held Mia to her chest – small fragile memories which Mia pitted against the lies she was told. She became deft at sticking herself to walls, eavesdropping on her stepmother and uncle as they talked about her father’s condition. If there was one thing she learned, it was that truth was changeable, and Mia could not pierce their stories in quite the same way that she pierced the sliding rice-paper doors of her stepmother’s room.

2008

Summer

Mia sat by the window with her back turned to the reports she had brought home from the Embassy, work she knew she would be hard pressed to finish before the end of the week. She could hear the neighbour’s dog moving about in the yard, his metal lead dragging across the gravel. He was prone to long fits of barking  which almost everyone had learned to ignore. The approaching monsoon announced itself in the thickness of her damp T-shirt. She lit a cigarette and switched on the small fan by her desk; exhaled through the mosquito net covering her window.

Always there was this reluctance to begin her work. A fear that she would get it wrong. Every translation was a test. Proof that she too could be one of them. She absent-mindedly circled the word ‘Yongguk’. England, she wrote. Literal translation: ‘Great Nation’. Country of tea, gentlemen with top hats, Big Ben, ‘Dah-ling’ and ‘Dear’ and English women at Embassy parties who turned their backs to her when she approached them.

This anxiety for perfection had been heightened by the arrival of the new political counsellor, Thomas Dalton-Ellis, who replaced old Willis after he had retired early some months before, on account of his emphysema. Dalton-Ellis was taller and younger than any of his predecessors, often came to the office without a tie and with his shirt sleeves rolled back. An Embassy darling, it was rumoured that diplomacy had trickled down through several generations of his family. In contrast to the American soldiers, whose bodies Mia had come to know so well, Thomas seemed long-limbed and lanky, but since his arrival, there had been a noticeable increase in the attendance of Embassy wives at official events. Dresses became more extravagant. His presence provoked an aspiration of some sort in everyone. Mia thought of Mrs Christie who had fluttered from one person to the next at the Ambassador’s birthday drinks, touching her husband’s guests on the arm with practised affect. Mia had watched her, mimicking the movement of her lips, practising her enunciation, trying to feel the crisp ‘T’s on the tip of her teeth, just as she heard them on the BBC. Mrs Christie had spoken at length with Thomas, gazing up at him in a sparkling way that she had held back from the other guests. Mrs Christie had laughed at something Thomas said and her body shook. Then she had checked herself, and smoothed the back of her hair, the nape of her neck.

Thomas’s arrival had resurrected an old uneasiness, a self- consciousness in Mia. A sense that she teetered on a tightrope, on the verge of being banished from a world that could be her birthright. Suddenly precision in her work became of the utmost importance. She took another drag of her cigarette and wrote: ‘The Korean chamber of commerce and industry, the largest and most influential business federation in Korea, representing…’ and  stopped.  Her  translations occasionally provoked a twitch on the side of Thomas’s mouth. He would make an offhand comment about Americanisms, and then her tea-stained reports would appear at the bottom of his wastebasket. When she tried to confront him her tongue swelled to twice its size. He was never direct. There was something in his restraint that she wanted to unravel. His eyes and mouth were in constant opposition. His mischievous lips were perpetually on the verge of either a pout or a lopsided ironic smile. She could never tell whether he was joking or serious.

Through the thin, yellowing floors she could hear her stepmother, Kyung-ha, moving around in the kitchen downstairs. She extinguished the cigarette in her fingers and resented the adolescent impulse to do so. She was an adult of almost thirty, but the unearthly pitch of Kyung-ha’s voice still had the power to freeze her blood.

She returned her attention to the translations. Was there an entire world held back behind the stiff upper lip of the English? Did they feel the same emotions as the Koreans? Was it merely that they lacked the words to express them? There were endless adjectives for sadness in Korean. She imagined her English translations of these words as thieves with holes at the bottom of their already undersized sacks. Mia tapped her pen against her desk. Did this make Koreans more articulate or more emotional? Her stepmother never held back in expressing herself. The sting of her stepmother’s hand on her face could bring her back to focus.

The dog across the road began to bark again. She wished it could be put out of its misery. She lit another cigarette. Relief seemed more important than any consequent retribution. After all, there was little Mia could do to inspire her stepmother to hit her these days. And strangely, she felt this as a growing lack of interest. After Mia’s hospitalization, her stepmother had grown distant. The reason for the absence of beatings did not seem to be Mia’s vulnerability. In fact, her stepmother had hardly acknowledged that she had almost died. She had begun her translations in hospital. In converting one word to another, all was not lost. Meanings could be salvaged and carried across borders.

What about words like jeong? How could she explain that? Affection, she wrote. She scratched at the word with the pencil. Affection had a ring of choice about the matter. Affection alone would not cover it. Jeong was more a-deep-attachment-rooted-in-shared-history-regardless-of-whether-you-like-it-or-not.

*****

Mia stopped writing at the sound of her uncle Han-su’s voice from the kitchen below. There was something heavy and urgent in the way he spoke. Over the years, she had grown accustomed to the visits where her uncle would announce a political arrest or the interrogation of one of his students at the school he ran for North Korean defectors. Since they had stopped speaking, Mia had tried to acquire a deafness to the turn in his voice, but the anguish in it today was hard to ignore. She had once adored him after all.

Aigoo, you can’t carry that burden as your own. You gave him every opportunity. You gave him an education, you helped him get on his feet,’ she said.

The unfamiliar consolation in her stepmother’s voice was particularly alarming. She was not normally like that with her brother-in-law. Mia rose from her chair and  drew  closer  to  the edge of the room, where the floorboards were thinner. She picked at the linoleum in the corner and rolled it back, exposing a narrow crack through to the kitchen. She saw her uncle wipe his face with a handkerchief.

‘It wasn’t enough,’ he was saying. ‘They say Myung-chul was hanging from the shower railing for hours before he was found. Think of his parents. Still in the North. Imagining that their son is alive and well. That hope alone must keep them alive. And they don’t even know . . .’

‘You have to think of all the kids who are in a better place because of your school.’

She let go and the linoleum rolled itself flat with a slap. She had heard enough. Over the years she had been tormented by these stories of her uncle’s students. Those who had broken free and risked their lives: ripping their hands on barbed wire, swimming through frozen rivers, past snipers and brokers and people who would trade them for a copper pipe or scrap metal. They survived to kiss the gravel of their dream land. And yet they suffered, still. She had concealed her fear of these stories from her uncle. He didn’t know why she had refused to work with him and had been outraged when she had announced that she wanted to work at the British Embassy. He had spent his whole life resisting government bodies, participating in movements against the dictatorship. There had been almost a decade when he had had no permanent address and had survived on the charity of friends who had concealed him in their homes. The idea that his own niece, whom he had come to see as a daughter, would work for a government institution was taken as a personal affront.

She retreated down the ladder outside of the washroom and crossed the courtyard, past the blue gate leading to the street, to her father’s room, kicking off her shoes as she slid open the door.

Her Appa was leaning over a painting in the corner of the room. He gave her a crooked smile. His low table was cluttered with opened paint pots and dirty brushes of different sizes.

‘What is this?’

He was painting what looked like a skeleton walking across a desert plain.

‘Well, that’s pretty creepy.’

Her father’s face seemed to fall a little with disappointment. He groaned in reply.

‘I wish I knew what was going on in your head.’

He smelled gingery, the tips of his fingers stained with paint. The rush of affection she felt for him was always accompanied by fear of his frailty. She examined the yellow pallor of his skin, the soft whistle of his nostrils when he exhaled. Yet for all the anxiety she felt in his presence, there was something comforting about her father’s silence.

When she was younger, her ears had been filled with the cacophony of her stepmother’s contradictory stories. Kyung-ha rarely told the same story twice and had a selective deafness to her questions. She spoke of girls who were sold by their mothers. Of girls whose spirits left their bodies and inhabited foxes who would live for a thousand years. Or fireflies that clung to dokkaebi she had seen in the mountains as a child. Sometimes she would talk about the city that had been wiped out by the dictator in a single day, but when Mia asked her about this, she would say that to be interested in politics was a dangerous thing. Kyung-ha did not comment on her brother-in-law’s activities. As Mia grew older she realized the absence of intimacy in these stories. Her stepmother never spoke of her own childhood. Or of Mia as a child. Or what had happened to her father. And he would never be able to fill the holes left in these plots of her life.

‘I wish you could tell me more about my mother,’ she said to her Appa. She stroked the top of his head as though he were a pet. ‘How did you manage? How did you explain words like jeong?’

The morning her brother-in-law, Han-su, arrived on her doorstep unannounced, Kyung-ha had had a premonition of death while she was slicing a lotus root in her kitchen.

She was preparing a side dish for lunch, something simple to eat in the stifling heat, when she saw a glimmer of movement in the living room and was faced with the image of her dead son, Jong- ho. She dropped her knife onto the cutting board. Over the years she had often sensed her son’s presence, but had rarely seen him. She followed him as he passed through the living room, descended into the courtyard and unlatched the rusting blue gate, where Han-su stood sweating in a thick black suit.

Kyung-ha blinked several times, unsure of what she’d seen, her body as cold as stone, unsure of what she was inviting in as Han-su crossed the threshhold into the house.

He stood in the kitchen, holding a cup of barley water in his hands for several moments before saying, ‘I lost a boy.’

‘He might come back,’ she said, though she had an inkling of what he meant.

‘No,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘It’s my fault. I pushed him too hard.’

Aigoo, you can’t carry that burden as your own. You gave him every opportunity. You gave him an education, you helped him get on his feet.’

‘It wasn’t enough,’ he said. His hand shook slightly as he wiped his face with a handkerchief. ‘I don’t understand. He wasn’t…broken. They say Myung-chul  was hanging from the shower  railing for hours before he was found. Think of his parents. Still in the North. Imagining that their son is alive and well. That hope alone must keep them alive. And they don’t even know…’

‘You have to think of all the kids who are in a better place because of your school,’ she said, but she had to turn away. Not because she knew the boy, but because she knew there was nothing for grief but time. With time there was forgetting and even then, the grief did not fade, but hid in strange corners, ready to be uncovered at unexpected moments – at the appearance of the first autumn sunlight, under the relief of the shade of a tree. They sat for a while in silence, listening to the occasional studio laughter that came from the TV in Jun-su’s room, the groaning of wood in the heat upstairs.

‘It’s not your fault,’ she said, but the words lacked conviction. She had not been able to absolve herself of guilt when it had been her son.

She sensed that her brother-in-law was about to ask for something. It was rare for him to pay her a visit unannounced. To confide in her. His presence solicited a deep-rooted sense of guilt. Han-su’s work made her own at the church look like a hobby. After years of hiding he had returned from his missions in China and had started a school for North Korean teenagers who had defected across the border. He had held his first classes in his own single-room apartment and then had managed to build a school through charitable donations. She looked after a cripple and her wayward stepdaughter, but he looked after so many more at his school. The children were often troubled and struggled to adapt. They often disappeared. Some left for Scandinavia, she had even heard of others who had gone back to the North. But suicide was a rare occurrence.

‘I have to ask you for a favour,’ he said finally. His hand trembled as he reached for the drink in front of him. His eyes shifted uneasily. ‘It’s a lot, I know you have more than you can carry already.’

Kyung-ha said nothing, afraid of encouraging him.

‘There’s a boy, Hyun-min. He lived with Myung-chul. Take him for me. He’s eighteen. I’m worried about him. I don’t want him to be alone.’

‘You think this is a house of charity?’ she snapped. ‘We don’t have anywhere for him to stay.’

‘Give him a futon. He can sleep in the living room.’ He sighed. ‘I would take him but the others might ask questions about why he’s special. I can’t take them all.’

He looked at her as though she were a saint. That was the lie between them. This man who had dedicated his life to broken children saw her taking care of his brother and thought they were the same. She knew she couldn’t say no. And it felt like another challenge. Another burden to atone for her sins. She had taken Jun-su back despite his many women. Taken his child. But it wasn’t enough. She still lived with that haunting spirit, the guilt that crouched on her sleeping shadow every night. She didn’t want to get involved in these politics. After everything that had happened after Jun-su’s arrest, she had vowed to steer clear of it all.

‘I know things are tight with money. I can help. Not much. But just so you don’t have to dig too deep in your pockets to feed him.’

A reminder. Of how long she had been in Han-su’s debt. Over the decades he had often helped her by handing over envelopes of money.

She glanced at the envelope he stretched out to her.

‘Hyun-min was the one who found Myung-chul hanging. Think about it. As if it wasn’t enough already. To find your roommate, your friend, like that. What that would do to a boy,’ Han-su said. ‘He won’t say it, but I know it’s shaken him up. It will only be for a short while. Till he finds his feet.’

Kyung-ha stared into her palm. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh. She thought of the parable of the Prodigal Son and agreed to take the boy.

Later that evening, Kyung-ha filled a bucket with water from the taps and prepared her husband’s bath. The sorrow that coursed through her blood, the persistent ache in her gut – the han – it was her inheritance; she had been born to a nation of people who were destined for hardship and sorrow, who toiled for others until their backs broke. They were not like Westerners, who flitted from one choice to another based on what they desired most in the moment. Squatting on the cold tiles of the toilet, she undressed her husband and dipped her hand into the bucket to check the temperature. The paralysis was not so severe that he could not bathe himself, and touching him was not without discomfort, but she bathed him every day nonetheless. Pinprick-like pains travelled inside her veins as she washed him. The water was a little too warm, but she dipped the ladle into the bucket and poured the water over his head. He let out a cry of protest but she had already begun scrubbing his thin, patchy hair with shampoo, gently at first, and then vigorously. She remembered the morning’s sermon. It had begun with the passage from Matthew. ‘If ye forgive men their trespasses . . .’ She eased the pressure of her hands and instead stroked the oily soap over his bony chest. How many women had touched him there? Their eyes met. Though his left eyelid drooped, his good eye was startlingly lucid. Kyung-ha looked away for a moment before turning back and scrubbing him hard, leaving red marks on his skin. Outside a vendor was calling for unwanted cats and dogs on the streets. A mother chided a child. The evening chill was beginning to set in.

She poured water over her husband’s shoulders. ‘All that talk and here we are, old man.’ She paused as she refilled the bucket, then poured the water over his shoulders and turned him around. They had known each other all of their lives. They had grown up in the same village and had swum in the lake by the rice paddies on their way home from school. In the summer, they sat outside their houses sharing watermelons while batting away mosquitoes and spotting fireflies before being called inside by their parents. He knew everything there was to know about fireflies, about anything. He read all the time. Everyone knew that he was bright. When he left to attend Seoul National University, she thought she would never see him again. Kyung-ha held the ladle in her hand for a moment, lost in the memory.

Her mother had passed away a year later. People had begun leaving the countryside and when a neighbour told her she would find work in a factory in Seoul, she packed her belongings, hoping that she might see Jun-su again.

Seoul was not at all what she had expected. The city seemed to expand forever. She had been overwhelmed by the noise and lights, the dusty streets cluttered with signs and advertisements, the sight of the roads filled with cars and buses. In her village they had been lucky if they saw a truck once a month.

She could not say how much time had passed when she saw him among a crowd of students outside the university gates. She had blinked several times; her eyesight could not be trusted after the many hours she spent under the harsh lights of the factory. And he had changed. He was paler. His clothes were neat. He led her to the darkened cafes where students whispered about democracy and Marxism during the curfew. She had been ashamed that she knew so little about such things. He had become a fantastic speaker. He could make her believe she wasn’t breathing when she was. But the same old awkward silences came between them as they went to the local bakery. They had exchanged stilted conversation over a slice of Castella cake. She had mistaken his sudden shyness for something else. Now she saw that she had been handed a lifetime of servitude in exchange for confectionery and a glass of milk.

She wondered what might have happened if she had never seen him again. If she had pushed away that plate. If she hadn’t followed him to those darkened alleys. If she hadn’t made the phone call that changed their lives for decades to come.

‘I forgive you,’ she said, but she left him shivering on the cold tiled floor.


Excerpted from The Defections by Hannah Michell. Copyright © 2014 by Hannah Michell.
First published in Great Britain in 2014 by 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.
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