Category Archives: March 2014

The Black Snow by Paul Lynch – Extract

The Black Snow

It was the beginning of darkness when Matthew Peoples saw it first. The thick shape of him upright in the field half- turning to scratch a nick at his shoulder. He stood there stripped to his grey vest unwashed and puzzled quietly upon what he saw — a thin cat’s tail curling grey into the sky, some kind of smoke that mingled easy with the cloud’s pewter. Evening was pressing down gentle and in the way the light fell he could have missed it, a yellowing that shook upon the fading day and cast the fields of Carnarvan in a flaxen glow. Three human shapes in that field and a triplicate of shadows winnowing long beside them. The bay horse for a moment easy.

Hardly a word was Matthew Peoples’ style until the work was done and maybe then he’d say a few words, a suck on his pipe and he would lean back and crack a joke quietly. He cleared his voice now and when he spoke he found himself unheard. He bent again to the work, the hair on his hands white to match the white shadow of his jaw, and he bore old-man eyes that sat deep in his skull, marked him out as older than he was. His hands red and spading at rocks that had sat for who knows how long in compact tight with the earth, lay orphaned now by the side of the field.

Matthew Peoples was following behind the horse. Eight years old she was and there was something unsettled about her. He had led her out from the stable that morning but she balked in the yard, tried to back up away from him, snouting the air with intransigence. Hold it easy there you. He thought he could smell an anxiety, something quavery beneath the skin, and he stared at her and took in the dark glass of her eye and saw in her the lengthening warp of himself. She blinked heavy a few times, turned her gaze towards the ground like she was in reverie about something and he watched her then lift a knee as if he had dreamed the disagreement. He was no expert with horses but he’d told Barnabas Kane about it and the man’s mouth made for a smile that did not reach the smiling place of his eyes.

When she’s not right she’ll as good as tell you, he said.

Well maybe she did.

Matthew pulled from the earth a stone shaped strange and he stopped and rubbed at its muck. A quality to it he saw and he spat on it and wiped it on his trousers. The stone was discoid- shaped like some neolithic tool he had once seen pulled out of a field, and he wondered if it was — the item smooth and flat and moulded by ancient hands he guessed as near a perfect thing. He looked towards Barnabas’s son Billy and held it up for him to see but the boy stood staring into his own thoughts. He was beside the horse, cradling his hand in his shirt, having scratched it earlier off a snarl of old bottle sticking out of the earth. He turned from the boy and pocketed the stone. The blue rope he used as a belt had come soft and he redid the knot and bent again to the work. A feeling then began to worry at him, like some strange tongue that came from a place felt but unformed, and he looked up the field towards Barnabas who had stopped to adjust the horse’s hitching. A gleam of power in the way Barnabas stood, squat and coiled under the muck-stained shirt. The stance of a man who was generally agitated. A man prone to thoughts of deeper things but awkward to mention it. The growing lank of Billy beside him, fourteen years old with a pussing face.

In her ears the music of bees and then the silence of the house. Eskra Kane stood thin in the hallway in a blue smock that near matched her eyes. Her brunette hair slid into her face as she took off her bonnet, the bee-veil draped bridely over it, and she placed it on the bannister’s snub-nose. The living room was held bright beside her by the yellowing light and it shone upon the dark of the piano. She sighed. Days like these dried the damp in your bones, set loose the heart from the hasp of winter. When she came to Donegal with Barnabas, the boy Billy was learning to speak. The locals watched them with wary eyes and the wind burled and sank its teeth. Only Barnabas knew the talk. She saw the country as wild and poor, a vision darker than the dream spun by her emigrant parents, Tyrone folk who took the boat for New York and built for themselves what they could. Here she saw damp and desolation, a gnawing you had to fight against that was relentless. Those first nights she would lie awake beside Barnabas and listen to the rain and the wind and then nights when the weather seemed to cease altogether and she heard in that silence the opening of a void. This place her husband had been sent away from as an orphaned boy. She had learned to find comfort in rare evenings such as this, drew solace watching the boy grow up natural in a country that was by rights his home.

In the kitchen she found the stove ticking. Must of turf and the savour of cooking stew. Lavender on the air lightly. A storm of crumbs as usual about the place where Matthew Peoples had sat down to eat, big slow hands reaching for the black bread and pulling at it. She wiped the deal table and saw they were near out of loaf. Time soon enough to light the lamps. Around the room the gloaming bore its shadows that stretched like a circus of dark animals waking.

The field was an uneven hummocked thing long unused, lay like a withered leg alongside wider pasture made separate by trees. It was of no use other than as a dumping ground. At the start of February Barnabas had stood knuckling his cheek and said he was sick of looking at the place. A funny few days of warm weather. We’ll plough it up and get the rocks out of it and manure it to fuck and let’s see. They stood looking over it. Swathes of the field nettle-fleshed that roiled when the wind rose up a wild sea. Half- hid amidst them was the wreck of an old grubber spored with rust. They had to drag it out using the horse and left the old implement tensed and gnarled in a hollow by the trees. The field cornered with bunching blackthorns and Matthew Peoples went at them flashing smiles with a billhook.

The horse was giving Barnabas trouble and Billy stepped in to lead it by the harness. Barnabas looked at the boy and walked over to him, took his hand in his own. Go back to the house would you and get that tended to by your mother. He let go the boy’s wrist and pinched him softly in the ribs and Billy shrank away from him. Leave off will you. He stood there looping the end of his shirt around his hand ignoring the instruction.

Barnabas sighed. You’ll ruin that shirt.

Shirt’s old as fuck anyhow so it is. I can fix the horse.

The horse doesn’t need no help.

Billy leaned in to examine her. A coin-sized patch of hair missing just behind the harness and he walked around and saw the same on the off side.

She’s going raw so she is.

I doubt that.

Maybe we should rest her.

Barnabas laughed. That horse’s been on her holidays, lying in field and stable all week.

Billy soothed the horse’s muzzle, looked into the dark of her eyes as if he could transmit some feeling or intention into her.

Matthew Peoples stretched his back and he heard then the distant sound of the byred cattle. Lowing like a sour wind. What in the hell’s up with them? The damned rope-belt had come loose again and he fixed it tight and felt some queer thought nicking at him and he turned and caught sight then of the smoke, saw how the curling cat’s tail had thickened into a spiral of dark slate. He watched how it folded upon itself and in an instant seemed to increase twofold and he looked across to the others, felt something flutter inside him. His voice in his throat tight and his mind seized upon words and made them concrete.

Hey boys, he said.

Billy’s mongrel, Cyclop, had appeared in the field beside him, stood watching fierce-gazed with his orange eye unblinking. The dog with a mind of his own, a lordly indifference to the call of anybody and he turned and woofed toward the trees. Barnabas stood wondering. Maybe the horse was getting old or maybe there was something wrong with her like Matthew Peoples said

but he couldn’t see what it was. Never a bother before. And that boy needs to get that hand of his sorted. His face was hot and he was itching under his shirt and he waved at a fly buzzing by the horse’s withers. He turned to his son.

Would ye go and get that hand seen to. You’ll get it infected so you will.

The boy looked down at the hand and the blood on the shirt and he addressed the ground as he spoke.

I’m all right so I am.

Go on and get the rod for the horse then.

Barnabas bent and grabbed a rock shaped like the tooth of some old animal that had fallen there to die under the wheel of an ancient sun, and perhaps that may have been, but as he tossed it lazy towards the ditch Matthew Peoples took a step forward and cleared his throat again. Jesus Christ, boys. They took no notice of him or perhaps they didn’t hear, for later in their memories what each of them heard was the dull sound of Matthew Peoples’ boots thudding up the field. Not a word from the man and something comic about the way he moved with his limbs all thickly, like he was set to stumble and hit the ground at the knees, fall without his hands into the dirt face-forward, break apart into his constituent elements. But they’d never seen him move quicker, his hands balled like stones and the whites of ankles winking at them through the rise and fall of his slacks. And if Matthew Peoples had known what he was running towards he might have stopped right there, turned instead for the road gated at the far side of the field. Barnabas wondering what was up with the man when he heard him bellow belatedly, a single word that came backwards over the man like a lobbed stone. Had to hear it twice in his mind till his eyes travelled to a place above the trees where he saw the swirl blackly, a shimmy of smoke that seemed to do a bow just for him.

Fire.

A skim of starlings in the sky above Carnarvan seemed to mirror the rising wreath of drift smoke. The murmuration swung in unison like minds entwined, weaved the sky with giant breathing until the dusk pulsed like a lung. The group inverted and swirled, caught the light and bent it, swung again into a strip of infinite looping, nature’s way of mocking perhaps what was playing out below, or more likely the birds were oblivious, locked into their own state of being. The boy saw the display above the townland but did not register it in his mind, watched instead his father run blind up the field, looked towards the darkening trees. Like a visitant, something passed through him cold.

Barnabas’s mind staring over an abyss he could not see. He followed Matthew up the field, a drunkenness in his legs as if apprehension had become a fluid thing administered into his blood, and then he managed himself into a run.

Not the house, please be. Oh, Eskra.

The narrow field and the stretch of it endlessly and then he saw Matthew Peoples disappear into the trees. He followed, trees of oak and sycamore and a wizened beech that remained with fingers pointed to the sky as if trying to beseech some urgent claim upon life. The path worn through. He met relief in the shape of Eskra running towards them, her skirt hitched, her elbows flaring, flour on her hands. Never more fully alive in the way he saw her, her two cheeks burning. He saw Matthew Peoples stalling for a moment to listen to her, the man bent on his knees to catch his breath, and then he was off at a run. Barnabas caught up and stopped for her and she took his wrist in her floured hand white as if the blood had drained out of it. Sweat filming her high forehead and her breath jagging at the air like a knife, jagging at his eyes. She tightened her grip, tried to catch her breath. What he saw in her eyes near defeated him before she spoke, and when she did so, a sheaf of hair fell loose across her face.

The byre’s burning, she said.

She swiped quick at her hair and put upon her cheek a line of flour as if she had been marked.

Go shout for the boy, he said.

An imprint of her face upon his mind as he ran. His world narrowing down into a different kind of seeing.

The byre stood right-angled to the house, a building made of stone that was upon the land when he bought it. In length it was some fifty feet with pens for cattle now housed for the winter. Fodder in the loft under old oak beams. The byre had red double doors at the front that were not built wide enough for big cattle to walk through shoulder to shoulder, made it slow-going to move them in and out. His mind went over what he expected would meet him. Why now to fuck in February when they weren’t yet in the fields? Another few months and they would be passed it. He could hear Cyclop panting behind him, strained his eyes beyond the trees but could see nothing but what was before him, tree shadow serpentine on the track as if he had stepped into an unreality that annulled all time and rewrote all laws indifferently.

He came upon the pasture field and what he saw was a helix of black smoke that hid the house, spread like squid ink in water.

The west end of the byre’s roof was blazing. Smoke sidled from its windows like water streaming backwards over rocks, curled towards the roof where it made with darker smoke a sickening union. He ran into the yard and saw Matthew Peoples working the long handle of the pump. The huge tree arms on him. A bucket slung over the pump’s snout and water sloshing in. Matthew Peoples turned with his face lit as if by rage and he began at a run towards the fire, swung the bucket back and pitched into the air a river. The water travelled for a moment glittering and strangely beautiful until it fell dimly upon the roof like a stone met with an ocean. Barnabas ran to him, grabbed at his shoulder. Fuck that, he said. He pulled him by the arm and pointed. They ran to the byre’s double doors and stood facing them, a wraith of smoke sly through the cracks as if the fire were but a small thing. Matthew Peoples’ eyes widened, took the look of a man who can’t swim being asked into water. He shook his head at Barnabas who stood squinting at the door. A pleading in Matthew Peoples’ eyes that went unseen and Barnabas stood watching the smoking door, felt for a moment his legs weaken, forty-three cows inside, and he took a breath, saw Eskra and the boy approaching the gate from the field, and it was then he put a hand to Matthew Peoples’ back and pushed him towards the door.

Perhaps the jambs had buckled in the spreading heat for the doors shook but wouldn’t give. Matthew Peoples pressed down the latch and he kicked at the wood and it met his advance with a judder that was made mute by the fire’s roar. Faintly they heard the voices of Billy and Eskra. Matthew Peoples took a step backwards and he looked nervously for the sky hooding slowly with evening and saw it instead made naught by smoke, and then he bulled towards the door and the door sucked open into a strange dark that swallowed the man in his entirety, Barnabas running in after him with his shirt hitched to his mouth.

The different smells of the barn wiped out like nothing in it had existed. The catalogue of smells – the way grass and dung and feed knit into an odour of their own making. The weighted must of hay. The damp smell of an aged building. Now just the rank smell of burning and the air smoked to the nullity of a dream. What terrified the two men most was the sound of the animal’s frantic thunder. The cattle locked in their pens clamouring on top of one another to get out. One dark autumn day Barnabas had seen them rattled and stampede as if they were a single thinking thing, fleeing towards the byre during a break of thunder under clouds that had come down to meet them. Now they gave off a dismal bellowing that no person would want to hear. He felt Matthew Peoples’ arm upon his shoulder but could not see him, felt the arm let go, the impress of the man’s hand still upon him. The faint outline of things, his eyes rawing to the smoke, his breathing shallowed as if he had taken a kick to the belly. He coughed and bent to his knees, and what he heard then was the issuing of the fire’s own sounds, the deep purring of contentment, as if fire was something that sat compact and waiting in a coiled malevolence and revelled being let out. He had to replay in his mind the layout of a byre he knew backwards but wherever he crawled he could not find the pens, could find nothing at all, his hands upon the ground yet the surface yielding no clues to him, no marks nor points of reference, as if what had been was erased, and when he tried then to find the door nothing at all was visible, not the walls nor the light from outside nor the man who went in with him, and he called out to Matthew Peoples, could barely hear his own voice as if he had been wadded at the mouth, and the panic then that seized him was like the bursting of light in his mind.

A pair of hands huge on him. A hank of his shirt noosed about his neck and he felt himself being pulled backwards, out the byre door and then into the yard where he was laid upon his back. His eyes stung shut from the smoke and the daybright hurt his eyes to see it. He lay there on the flagstones with his head turned dumbly and slowly he began to see, the world a thin blear, a patch of sky empty as a vale of snow until he saw it stain with dark smoke. The weft and warp of his breathing undone to a ragged stitching.

He looked up towards Matthew Peoples to thank him but who he saw was another. The hard-nugget eyes of his neighbour, Peter McDaid, one strabismus eye upon him and the other staring past his head as if he saw the shade of another there to disturb him. The laughter lines that made a marionette of his mouth had collapsed now altogether and a terrible frown was etched into his forehead with smokedirt in the creases of it. He began to shake Barnabas. Are ye kilt? Are ye kilt? Eskra leaning over him and then she helped Barnabas to sit up. The air was rank and yet in that moment he caught a linger of soft and ordinary smells off her, jasmine in her hair, a trace of the lavender she liked to place about the house in small bottles salvaged from the garden, flour dust from the hand she placed upon his cheek, and in that moment though he could not speak it he felt for her an eruption of no greater love and gratitude. And then as his eyes took full view of the byre he could smell nothing else but the smell of the world corrupted. He saw McDaid run towards the byre and saw him beaten back by smoke that corkscrewed towards him, the man going at it again and standing at the door helpless with his hands to his head. When he turned around Barnabas saw in McDaid a childishness that spoke of the man being stripped of all action and power in the quickening then of what was. The struggling of Barnabas’s tongue and he leaned over and tried to spit, his voice scratching out of his throat as if the greater part of it had been ripped out and left behind in the byre, a scream upon the floor shapeless and mute. Trying to sound the words to them. Matthew Peoples.

What kind of day it was afterwards those who talked about it hardly remembered. A temperate yellow evening with no rain was made forgettable. The fire had forged its own weather, wind-smoke that burled and circled like demons unleashed, one woman said. The way the evening heated up seemed as if the fire had boiled the air. Soot softly like snow that fell a brittle powder to the skin. The event impressed itself so strongly it consumed them like a folktale. The sound of the fire’s hunger was like some enormous force let loose upon the world – an epic thing that held within its violence the fierce, rolling energy of the sea. Human shapes rising up against it, their smallness pressing forward in waves only to be beaten back. Later, Barnabas could not even remember the difficulty they had with the horse. Or the things he had done that morning – the egg with the two yolks he had cracked open into a bowl and noted how it had happened twice that same week. And when darkness had sooted all but the smouldering byre’s embers, he did not remember about the horse that had been left hitched in the field until Billy reminded him of it. Must have stood for hours in discomfort. Sent the boy out to get it, an oil lamp bleary against the swamping darkness and then that warped communion of shadows coming back in.

In the space of a few minutes neighbours came to help. Three McLaughlin brothers running through riven fields, the three of them near-alike. They charged like racehorses with their chests out and their shoulders backwards slung, chestnut hair fluttering behind their ears. Shadows from the failing light made stern countenances of their sloping hard faces and they came to the house with their clothes thorned and burred like men who had climbed through all of nature to get there. One of them scratched red from the wrist all the way to his rolled sleeves. They saw Barnabas lying foetal in the yard, Eskra bending over him helping him to sit up. Peter McDaid standing there helpless with his hands to his head. The boy skulking back by the house like some animal wild-eyed and confused trying to remain hid. They saw too Peter McDaid’s bicycle where he had dropped it in the yard, the back wheel spinning slowly to a stop like a rickety wheel.

Soon more people came. A neighbouring farmer called Fran Glacken appeared stout-faced from an adjoining field with his two grown sons beside him, their wine-bald heads wet with sweat. Later, the wives and children who made their way to the farm began clutching at each other’s arms as if upon each other they could find resilience. How they stood together like a fortress.

Eskra ran about the yard but her mind in its violent thinking would not allow her to see. Fran Glacken grabbed a hold of her shoulder and shouted at her, his face held inches from hers and his eyes fit to bursting. Woman. Where are the buckets? The man before her an ageless beast, hairless and red like he had been skinned raw by weather after years of service to it and was left hardened like a lobster. She pointed towards the byre and froze till Glacken shook her again. She turned towards the stable and said you’ll find some more in there, swiped at the hair on her face that fell upon her vision like a curtain. Glacken moved towards it with his feet hid by smoke, a huge-limbed gliding thing, and he came out with buckets and went to the pump. He began to work its gasping mouth and nodded for one of the McLaughlin brothers to give the bucket to the men lining up in file. Saw Billy beside him wearing a look of confusion. Billy saw how the man’s face was smoked and his eyes were burning as if some kind of lunacy was let loose in them and perhaps it was, for Glacken reached out then with the flat spade of his hand and struck the boy in the face. Wake up there, he shouted. He sent Billy into the house for towels and the boy ran stunned into the kitchen. He stopped at the window to look, saw his father broken in the yard, three clocks ticking and then the slow lolling sound as each one belled five o’clock. He went upstairs to the cupboard and tumbled everything out and it came upon him then what it was and it shook itself loose, a great heaving thing inside him, and he became helpless to its forces. He stood staring at the wall and took a deep breath, took a heap of towels and went to the hall mirror and rubbed his eyes dry until it looked like he had not been crying.

Smoke lingered in the kitchen and nestled catly in the corners. It thickened the air of the back yard like a wall. He pushed through it towards the pump where he saw the outline of Glacken as if the man was half-being and he came close and wary and saw the man’s forehead split by a swollen vein. Glacken took the towels without looking at him and sluiced them and passed them up the line telling the others to tie them about their faces. Eskra came alongside him then, tried to push him without a word away from the pump. He moved her away with one arm and a shout. Yer not strong enough woman. He saw igneous in her eye and outstared her, thrust into her hand a full bucket. You’d be better off, Eskra, if you were passing buckets in the line.

Nobody saw Goat McLaughlin appear in the yard, the father of the three McLaughlin brothers. He sidled through the smoke with quick small steps, a prophet face fiercely bearded save for brilliant blue eyes that shone out of him as if he carried within him a conviction more righteous than all others. His muscles were waste on his bones and dewlaps of skin hung off his sinew and his quick-seeing eyes picked out Fran Glacken at the pump. He stepped silently into the chain and pushed one of his sons to the front so now there were three men throwing buckets of water upon the roof, water coursing into the air and firewind spraying some of it back upon the yard and upon their faces, a lurching carousel of limbs that began and circled back to Fran Glacken.

Barnabas sat on his haunches with his head in his hands, his breath a ruined thing. He looked across the yard and met the eyes for a moment of his wife, the woman swivelling her hips to pass backwards an empty bucket, wasn’t sure she even saw him, her hair now hanging loose over her face like she did not give a damn to see. He eyed the burning door of the byre and could hear the dying of his animals. The body of Matthew Peoples in amongst them. Jesus fuck. What have I done? In his mind he saw Matthew Peoples reaching out for the pens, blind and grasping through smoke as if you could get a handle on such a thing, the smoke scattering in his hand like dream dust. A big man like that brought down. He could see him lying there, his lungs full as if he were drowning. Matthew Peoples’ mute face. He felt then an urge to run back in for the man even though by now Matthew Peoples would be dead, thought again of that smoke welling in his own lungs, and it brought to him a perfect terror.

At first, stunned word went through the line that Matthew Peoples had not come out of the byre, but then they grew quiet, wore it in their faces. It was if they were afraid of acknowledging it to one another, a glance told that would speak of some communal guilt that only one man amongst them had gone into the fire and he could only bring one man back out. They knew too the dangers without having to talk about them. The way the buildings were laid out. The new shed fattened with hay. A small mountain of turf under a tarpaulin. The way the firewind made towards the house. They wondered if the fire would reach it, saw the way the smoke mapped the wind’s movement so that the shape of it became visible, a calligraphy of violence that rewrote itself with a capacity endless for its own pleasure. Peter McDaid dropped out of the line and ran to the turf and began to move what he could but the heat became too much for him. He swatted at it as if it were a horsefly bothering him, held his elbow up beside his face until he was forced to turn. The chickens long scattered from the yard to the back fields while Cyclop ran about the yard barking at the commotion and then he turned and retreated to the back step.

Goat McLaughlin saw a drop in the wind and told his eldest the weather was granting favour. The house will be saved, he said. He pronounced it like a sage and the son turned and spoke behind him to his brother. The fire humming with its own satisfaction while every person there blocked from their mind the noise of the cattle – the mournful slow sounds of their dying that cut through the air like bassoons.

Nobody saw Barnabas as he leaned himself up and began to walk slowly towards the house, a dread thing with torn breathing. A wheezing in his chest as if something had nested itself inside him. He noticed how smoke had pressed into the house so that everything stank of it and he went to the kitchen cupboard and took down a box of cartridges. He walked slowly towards the door and took the break-action shotgun that leaned behind it, a twelve- gauge Browning, and sat down on the chair with a slump. He put the gun flat on his lap and hinged it open and fumbled with a shaking hand for the cartridges, fed them into the gun’s mouth. He stood and filled his pockets with the remaining cartridges and held onto the deal table, sucked air through a rasp in his chest as if he had been holed by the gun, saw through the window the way the smoke had unmade the farm into the remainder of some dim dream.

Nobody saw him drift up the yard, the way he walked slowly like a man footing thick sand. At the west end of the byre the heat was less intense. They heard the sound of two gunshots and some of them thought it was an explosion. Then Peter McDaid saw Barnabas by the side of the byre trying to reload the shotgun. He ran towards him and Barnabas raised the gun and aimed it through the window. McDaid ducked when he heard the third shot and he saw Barnabas squaring to fire another. McDaid upon him then, seizing the gun. Jesus Christ, Barnabas.

Eskra came running towards them with her hands hid by her sleeves. Her lips parted when she saw the shotgun. They propped him under each arm and walked him through the yard and she saw the look Glacken gave them, a look of pure disgust. A car came into the yard as they walked towards the house. Out of it stepped Doctor Leonard, the old man tall and stooped with a thicket of greying yellow hair. He came towards them with his bag and a cigarette perched at the end of long brown fingers. He smoked undeterred, smoked as if to seal his lungs from what plumed around him, looked with concern at Barnabas, saw he was infirm and reached for him under the elbow but Barnabas weakly shook himself free. Naw, he said.

The doctor took hold of him again. Come inside now, Barnabas. I need to be out with them.

The doctor walked him in. He pulled up a chair at the table and sat him down, saw amidst sweat and smoke and dirt the man’s frightened crying eyes, could hear his rent breathing. He leaned his cigarette in an ashtray on the table and helped Barnabas out of his shirt, put a stethoscope to the squall of greying hair on his chest and listened to the storm amplified. Eskra stood fidgeting and angry behind them. What were you doing with the gun, Barnabas? she said.

A knife-edge in her voice brought out the foreign notes in her accent and the doctor gave her a long look to leave the man alone. He nodded to her hands. I see your eczema had broken out again. Barnabas looked up at the outline of his wife, his eyes half closed, and he smiled at her a look she saw as blank and bovine. Leave him be for now, Mrs Kane. He’s taken in a lot of smoke.

Eskra dropped onto her knees, her hair loose about her eyes, and she grabbed Barnabas by the hand, spoke to him sadly. Tell me what you were doing with the gun.

Barnabas continued his strange smile and then he let the smile fall and began to whisper to her but she couldn’t hear through his breathing. She leaned in closer.

I wanted to give them all a clean death.

Nothing they could do could stop the byre burning down, though the wind with a mind of its own turned before the fire reached the house. No one spoke about the dying sound of the animals and they kept silent to themselves the thought that a man’s bones were mixed up in it. The burning made the darkness that fell around them more compact and as the dark deepened the sounds of the animals quietened. The men began to stand in the comfort of women. Somebody made tea and steaming cups were passed around. The men slaked from the cups and wiped dirt- sweat from their eyes with blackened towels. Eskra encircled. Barnabas kept in the kitchen by the doctor, who sat with him. Everybody heard the sound of the collapsing byre like the last rattling breath from something huge now spent of its life force. Whatever beam was left standing collapsed with a shudder and that was it. It made a shiver of dark smoke and a glittering of sparks shot terrible amber into the sky that burned itself out into black snow. They heard what they guessed was the sound of a wall caving in and they took a step back and some of them gasped. Christ, a man said. The others followed to look. Every person had assumed that no animals could have survived, but they were met by the vision of dark shapes emerging from the byre, shapes indistinct but for the flaming that consumed them and turned them into ghastly silhouettes, the voices of the animals weirdly silenced. Barnabas struggled past the doctor and came out of the house to watch. He saw whatever was left living of the cattle come pouring out through the broken wall, some of them tottering and then falling, others running blind, living things it seemed that had become the separate parts of some sort of slow explosion that sent them in different directions through the night. The flaming cattle ran into walls with a pathetic dull thud or came with a silent end upon a tree. Another cow collapsed upon a whin bush and the bush took light and winked at them an eerie yellow purple and when the bush burned itself out the animal still sedately flamed, while some of the animals did not run at all but dropped down under the silent sky, lay there with their burning hides. Barnabas turning around to the doctor, trying to speak, clutching at his arm. He whispered the words out of him. As if the black gates of hell have been cast open.


Excerpted from The Black Snow by Paul Lynch Copyright © 2014 by Paul Lynch.
First published in Great Britain 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.

Red by Alison Cherry – Extract

Red

Part One

Redheaded women! Those blood oranges! Those cherry bombs! Those celestial shrews and queens of copper! May they never cease to stain our whitebread lives with super-natural catsup.
—Tom Robbins, “Ode to Redheads”

1

SUNDAY, MAY 2

The banner fluttering in the breeze outside City Hall read SCARLETVILLE, IOWA: NATIONAL REDHEAD SANCTUARY

Felicity St. John, who had lived in Scarletville all her life, couldn’t even begin to guess how many times she had encountered the phrase “national redhead sanctuary.” It blasted from her clock radio every morning, repeated over and over by the DJs at Scarletville’s classic rock station, KRED. It was printed under the masthead on the town’s newspaper, the Scarletville Gazette. It was etched onto a plaque on the front of Scarletville High School. And Felicity was probably going to hear the clichéd phrase a hundred times more today.

It was Scarlet Sunday, the anniversary of the founding of Scarletville, and the yearly carnival was in full swing. The lampposts in the center of town were festooned with red flowers, and the breeze carried the popcorn-and-fried-dough smell of celebration. The town was turning seventy-five this year, and the mayor’s carnival committee had really outdone itself. Main Street was lined with food vendors, game booths, and displays of local crafts, as it was every May. But this year, the number of rides in the town square had tripled, and they were significantly more terrifying than usual. Felicity couldn’t even look at the paralyzing vortex of doom called Zero Gravity without feeling slightly ill. Her twin half brothers, on the other hand, had no such qualms. From all the way across the plaza, she could hear Andy’s and Tyler’s seven-year-old voices shrieking with joy as the flying swings whipped them around in dizzying circles. Felicity hoped they would keep their cotton candy securely in their stomachs, but judging from past carnivals, it was highly unlikely.

The mayor must have publicized Scarletville’s anniversary quite aggressively this time around—the dinky local press was there, of course, but there were also representatives from neighboring towns, including a reporter from the Des Moines Register. Right now, all the reporters and a sizable portion of the town’s population were gathered in front of the grandstand, where the mayor was holding a press conference. He was just finishing his opening remarks, using the same speech he always gave on Scarlet Sunday. Felicity and her best friends, Haylie and Ivy, had heard it so many times they could recite it along with him.

“Less than four percent of the world’s population is blessed with red hair, and in my grandfather’s day, those redheads were scattered far and wide across the globe!” boomed the mayor. “And to add insult to injury, these poor scattered redheads were often much maligned in their communities, where they were considered oddballs and curiosities. Our priceless recessive genes would have been bred out of existence within fifty years had no one stepped up to prevent it! But my forward-thinking grandfather saw that we should bond together in solidarity, making precious redheaded children and raising them in a safe, supportive environment. Let’s hear it for Scarletville, our nation’s one and only redhead sanctuary!” The crowd applauded wildly, as it always did.

When the mayor finished the Gospel of Scarletville, reporters peppered him with questions about the town’s history and redheadedness in general. A small blond journalist raised her hand high. “Mayor Redding!” she called. “How would you respond to the accusation that Scarletville discriminates against people with other hair colors, particularly among the younger generations? According to my sources, the student council, the Scholastic Bowl, the cheerleading squad, and several of the athletic teams at the high school are composed exclusively of redheads.”

The mayor’s undersized orange mustache twitched like an agitated chipmunk, and Felicity had to work hard not to snicker. “Of course we don’t discriminate against people with other hair colors,” Mayor Redding said. “We love all our children here in Scarletville. But are we really to blame if we’ve created an environment where redheads can blossom and live up to their full potential?” There were shouts of approval. “Besides, nearly seventy-five percent of the students at Scarletville High are redheads. Statistically, it makes sense that most of our highest achievers would have red hair. Redheads are Scarletville’s finest natural resource!” This was another of the mayor’s pet phrases.

“Do you think Redding can possibly be his original family name?” Ivy whispered. “His grandfather must have changed it back in the day, right? Don’t you think it’s just a little too convenient?”

Felicity shook her head, and her long, sideswept bangs fell into her eyes. “There’s just something about that mustache. I can’t get over it.”

Haylie smacked her on the shoulder. “Don’t bash Mayor Redding. I think he’s adorable.” One of the news vans on the corner crept a little closer, and Haylie eyed it with excitement. “Hey, do you think we’ll be on the news?”

You won’t, shorty,” Ivy snorted. “All the cameras will be able to see are two little red buns with butterfly barrettes.”

Haylie looked outraged. “Look who’s talking! You’re half an inch taller than me, if that!”

Felicity always felt like a giant next to her best friends. She was only five seven, but she had a good five inches on both of them.

“The difference is that I don’t want to be on the news,” Ivy said.

“Want me to carry you on my shoulders, Hays?” Felicity offered. “You weigh about forty-five pounds. Hop on.”

“I’m such a shrimp. I’m never going to win the Miss Scarlet Pageant with stumpy legs like these.”

Haylie was a ballerina and had an appropriately tiny frame, but she was anything but stumpy. “Haylie, short people win pageants all the time,” Ivy said. “Don’t you ever think about anything besides the stupid Miss Scarlet Pageant? Why do you care so much?”

“It’s not stupid! And how could you not care? They’re announcing the competitors as soon as the press conference is over!”

“I don’t care because I didn’t enter. Which part of me says ‘pageant girl’ to you? Is it my flowing tresses? Or perhaps my bodacious bosoms?” Ivy gestured to her rust-colored hair, which was cropped in a messy pixie cut, and her virtually nonexistent boobs. Today she was dressed in her swim team T-shirt, a fleece vest, cargo pants, and flip-flops. Ivy in a ball gown made about as much sense as Mayor Redding in pink footie pajamas.

To be honest, Felicity didn’t see herself as a beauty queen, either. Haylie was the one who had always loved the town’s pageants. But Felicity had done them both with her: Little Miss Scarlet when she was eight, Miss Ruby Red at twelve. And now here she was, a junior in high school, waiting to see if she had been chosen to compete for the all-important title of Miss Scarlet. Countless times, she had considered backing out and saying she just wasn’t interested in pageants.

But there was no chance of that. Not when her mom was the one who ran them.

Ginger St. John had been crowned Miss Scarlet the year the town turned fifty, and from the moment that crown landed on her head, the pageant was the love of her heart. She had been grooming her daughter to follow in her footsteps since Felicity had been two years old. Felicity suspected her mom had gotten pregnant at twenty-five on purpose, just so her daughter would be the right age to compete in Scarletville’s seventy-fifth-anniversary pageant.

And so far, Felicity had done everything right. She had been born a girl. She had dutifully played with the other little girls Ginger considered potential stars. At her mother’s urging, she had learned to pose, answer interview questions, and strut down catwalks. To be a better pageant contestant, she had taken tap, jazz, and ballet with Haylie instead of the art classes she’d really wanted. And although she didn’t enjoy competing, she had grown quite good at it—her fear of disappointing her mom had always motivated her to work hard. She hadn’t won anything so far, but she had been first runner-up in the Miss Ruby Red Pageant, to Ginger’s unending delight.

Miss Scarlet was Felicity’s final pageant, but it was also the most important one. It was her last chance to become the winner her mom expected her to be. And the prize money that came with the title would be a huge help to her family. As Ginger constantly reminded Felicity, fifteen years of costumes and dance classes didn’t come cheap.

The mayor concluded his remarks, and Felicity’s mom approached the podium. The whole town grew quiet as Ginger adjusted the microphone. Haylie forgot about her argument with Ivy and grabbed both her friends’ hands for moral support. Her grip was so tight that her nails carved little crescents into Felicity’s skin. “Hi, everyone!” Felicity’s mom beamed at the crowd. “My name is Ginger St. John, and I’m the director of the Scarletville Pageant Committee! I’m here to announce the competitors for this year’s Miss Scarlet Pageant!” The crowd roared its approval. “There are seventy-eight eleventh-grade girls this year, all of whom are eligible for the competition, and sixty-four of those young ladies chose to enter. Our competitors were selected based on their photos, their accomplishments, and their essays about how holding the title of Miss Scarlet would help them achieve their personal goals. I just want everyone to know what a tough decision we had this year. All you girls are spectacular, and I wish we could have taken everyone. But as always, there are only twelve slots in the competition.” She made an exaggerated sad face, and Felicity sighed.

She hated it when her mom slipped into beauty queen mode and mugged for the crowd.

“But enough suspense! Let’s get to it! Georgia, may I have the envelope, please?”

Georgia Kellerman, the reigning Miss  Scarlet, left her seat near the podium and strutted across the stage. There was a storm of screams and whistles from the candy apple booth, where the cheerleaders were assembled—Georgia was their captain and queen. Today she was wearing her Miss Scarlet sash and crown over her cheerleading uniform, which should have looked ridiculous but somehow came off as chic. Her curled red hair hung loose to the center of her back and bounced as she walked. Had she been auditioning for a shampoo commercial, she would have booked the job for sure. When she reached the podium, she did a little spin, then presented Felicity’s mom with a large red envelope.

“Thanks, Georgia! Before I read the names, I just want to assure everyone that I did not help choose the contestants this year. That wouldn’t have been fair, since my Felicity’s in the running.” Ginger blew a kiss to Felicity, who blushed and wished she had something larger than her garden-gnome-sized best friends to hide behind.

“And now, ladies and gentlemen, the moment you’ve all been waiting for. This year’s Miss Scarlet contestants are . . .”

Felicity’s heart started hammering, and she squeezed Haylie’s hand tightly. If she wasn’t chosen, her mom might never recover. She was Ginger’s only daughter, her one and only chance to relive the most glorious experience of her life. If Felicity failed her now, seventeen years of careful planning would crumble to nothing.

The weight of responsibility pressed down on Felicity until she felt like someone had piled several boulders on her lungs.

Ginger pulled a piece of paper out of the envelope and unfolded it. Felicity searched for a telltale facial twitch indicating whether her name was on the list, but her mom’s expression didn’t change at all. “Madison Banks!” she called with a smile.

Madison was next in line to be cheerleading captain, and there was another round of screaming from the candy apple booth. She had won the Miss Ruby Red Pageant in seventh grade, so it was no surprise that she would be competing again. Her perky red ponytail bounced wildly as she jumped up and down and hugged her teammates. Felicity and Ivy made gagging gestures at each other, but Haylie seemed too nervous to notice anything except that the first name hadn’t been hers.

“Lorelei Griffin!”

Again, this was no surprise. Lorelei had been the star of last fall’s production of Little Shop of Horrors and had played the lead in Annie the year before. It was a good day for the Griffin family. Earlier that morning, Lorelei’s mother had won the Magnificent Mommy award for having produced seven redheaded children, the highest number in the community. It was a good thing the award came with a hefty check, as she was rumored to be pregnant again.

“Haylie Adams!”

Felicity barely had time to brace herself before Haylie came flying into her arms. “I made it I made it I made it!” her friend shrieked at the top of her lungs, drowning out the crowd’s applause. Ivy squeezed both of them, forming a Haylie sandwich, and Felicity struggled to stay on her feet. She was happy for Haylie, but that was three names down already—there were only nine slots left. What if she didn’t make the cut?

Haylie clambered back down to the ground as Ginger called Cassie Brynne’s name. “Don’t worry,” she said, reading Felicity’s mind. “You’re definitely going to make it.”

“You don’t know that for sure.”

Haylie rolled her eyes. “Um, hel-lo, you have the reddest hair in the whole school. I wish I had your color.” Her hair was lighter than Felicity’s, closer to carrot than copper. “And you’re the best artist, and you’re smart, and you’re so pretty. And everyone loves you. And, um, your mom runs the freaking pageant.”

“That doesn’t help. My mom didn’t get to vote,” Felicity said, but she felt buoyed by her friend’s compliments. There were still eight names to go. Maybe everything would be fine.

“Ariel Scott!” called her mom, and a small group of strawberry-blond girls near the edge of the grandstand shrieked with joy. Ariel was so overwhelmed that she started to cry.

“Ariel? Seriously?” scoffed Haylie. “Her hair’s hardly even red!”

“They always put one strawbie in the pageant,” Ivy said. “It looks bad if they don’t. Especially after the mayor’s whole speech about ‘loving all our children regardless of their hair color.’ ” She twitched her upper lip in an imitation of Mayor Redding, and Felicity giggled despite her nerves.

“But, I mean, it’s called the Miss Scarlet Pageant for a reason,” Haylie said. “It should really be for redheads only, don’t you think?”

Felicity had just opened her mouth to respond when her mom called, “Ivy Locklear!”

Ivy’s eyes widened until they were dangerously close to popping out of their sockets. “What?” she gasped as Haylie jumped up and down, squealing and clapping. “But I— How did this— I didn’t—”

“I did your application for you, doofus. I wrote your essay about how you wanted to assert your feminine side because people see you as such a jock.”

“Are you kidding me? How could the committee possibly have believed that?”

“It’s exactly what they want to hear! There’s nothing they like better than a reformed girl who’s seen the light and realized how important pageants are.” Haylie beamed. “Don’t be mad, Ives. I just wanted the three of us to do this together, like we always used to dream about when we were little! Don’t you remember how we played Miss Scarlet every day at recess?”

Ivy was turning redder by the second. “Haylie, we were in first grade! I stopped caring about beauty pageants when I stopped playing with My Little Ponies!” She whacked Haylie with her plastic bag of cotton candy, and Haylie squealed and ducked as sugary wisps flew everywhere.

Ivy turned to Felicity, holding up the half-empty bag threateningly. “You were in on this, weren’t you?”

Felicity shook her head and took a quick step out of Ivy’s sticky reach. “I didn’t know anything about it. But it won’t be that bad, will it?”

“C’mon, Ives, don’t go all Grouchy McSourpuss on us. It’ll be great. I’ll help you.” Haylie tried to pat Ivy’s shoulder, which gained her another whack with the cotton candy.

“I don’t want you to help me! I want you to tell the committee what you did and get me out of this! Felicity, you can have my spot.”

“Shut up, Felicity’s going to have her own spot!”

Felicity wasn’t so sure that was true. She barely caught the next two names over her friends’ commotion, but neither of them was hers. There were only four slots left now.

Ivy stuffed a wad of the abused cotton candy into her mouth. “What am I supposed to do for my talent? I can’t very well swim the butterfly or do advanced math in a pageant.”

“You’re really good at walking on your hands,” Haylie suggested.

“You’re a virtuoso on the kazoo,” added Felicity. She tried to read her mom’s face again so she could tell if her name was among the last four. She wished they had worked out some sort of secret hand signal in advance. Raise your right eyebrow and tug your ear twice if I’m in. Mime slitting your throat if I’m out.

“Great,” said Ivy. “That’s exactly what I’m going to do, just to spite you guys. I’m going to walk on my hands while playing the kazoo. In my freaking ball gown. I’m going to make a complete spectacle of myself, and you’ll be sorry you ever filled out that application.”

“You don’t wear your gown for the talent portion,” Haylie pointed out.

“Amber Neilson!” called Felicity’s mom.

Three names left. Felicity’s heart was beating so fast it felt as if there were a hummingbird trapped inside her rib cage.

And then her mom looked straight at her and winked. “Felicity St. John!”

Felicity’s knees almost buckled as a wave of relief swept through her. She was in. She had lived up to everyone’s expectations, including her mom’s. Haylie danced around, screaming, “I knew it! I told you!” then smashed Felicity into another group hug.

Ginger called the last two names—Jessie Parish and Savannah King—and then invited the twelve contestants up to the grandstand to take a bow. Ivy tried to escape into the crowd, but Haylie clamped a hand around her wrist and dragged her toward the stage. For such a tiny girl, Haylie was surprisingly strong, and Ivy seemed to realize that resistance was futile.

Felicity brought up the rear, accepting kisses, high fives, and shoulder squeezes from her friends and acquaintances as she snaked through the crowd. Everyone seemed to want to touch her and congratulate her. Though her mom had always kept her in the limelight, hoping to ensure her popularity, being so visible had always made Felicity uncomfortable. It seemed strange that anyone cared about her personal business. Sometimes she longed to hide in the shadows for a change.

“Felicity!” Her boyfriend, Brent, was fighting his way out of the tiny ring toss booth he was manning to raise money for the football team. She paused as he jogged toward her, his crimson jersey billowing in the breeze. When he reached her, he swept her up in a hug and spun her around, knocking her into several other people. “Congrats, sexy. Knew you could do it.” Brent was economical with his words, as if he were always texting instead of talking. He rarely said anything longer than 140 characters.

“Thanks,” said Felicity. Brent twined his hands through her wavy hair and gave her a kiss, and her stomach fluttered, just as it always did when he touched her. He was very attractive, with floppy auburn hair, dimples, and football-toned muscles. Felicity just wished she liked him a little more. He wasn’t exactly the brightest crayon in the box, and it was impossible to pretend otherwise. But he adored her, and there wasn’t any other boy in Scarletville she liked better. Every time she considered ending the relationship, it seemed like more drama than it was worth.

Brent held her tightly around the waist and clearly had no intention of releasing her any time soon. “Um, I’ve gotta go up onstage now,” Felicity reminded him.

“Oh. Right. Come by my booth later? I’ll give you a couple free tosses.”

“Sure.” She kissed him one more time, then gently pulled free and headed toward the grandstand.

As she walked by the sunblock vendor, Felicity passed a group of her brunette classmates, all of whom were staring at her coldly. She smiled at them—she tried to be friendly to everyone, regardless of their hair color—but their stony expressions didn’t change at all. “This pageant is so lame,” Gabrielle Vaughn said to Marina Rios, loudly enough to ensure that Felicity heard her. “I can’t believe I have to write about this crap for the Crimson Courier.”

“Why are you so pissed? It’s just another newspaper assignment. It’s not like any of us entered.” Marina flicked her dark ponytail over her shoulder.

“The point isn’t that we want to be in it,” Amanda Westin said. “The point is that even if we did, this stupid town would never let us.”

“Exactly. It’s not like that herd of redheads up there is any smarter or prettier or more talented than we are. Trust me, we deserve the recognition and the prize money a lot more than some people.” Gabby met Felicity’s eyes with a look so hostile it was like being doused with a bucket of ice water.

“Come on, Felicity!” Haylie called.

Felicity followed her friends, but she wasn’t paying attention to the crowd around her anymore. A pit had opened deep in her stomach, and all her relief about being named a contestant was spiraling into it like bathwater down a drain. As she made her way to the grandstand, she could feel a dozen brown eyes on her back.

She was the last one to reach the stage, and Ginger waited until she had mounted the grandstand steps to shout, “Let’s hear it for all our Miss Scarlet contestants!” The crowd cheered and whistled and catcalled, and the wave of sound washed over Felicity. Despite feeling completely overwhelmed, she tried to keep a smile plastered on her face. Pageants were all about smiling through your feelings. She might as well start now.

Parents began pushing through the crowd to hug their daughters, and Ginger St. John was no exception. The moment she was done announcing the whens and wheres of the pageant, she fled the podium and pulled Felicity into a bone-crushing embrace. “Baby, I’m so proud of you!” she gushed.

“Thanks, Mom.” As uncomfortable as Felicity felt, she was relieved to see her mom so pleased with her.

“I could barely keep from jumping up and down when I saw your name on that list, but I think my poker face was pretty good, wasn’t it?”

“A little too good, actually. You totally freaked me out. I thought for sure I wasn’t in.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry, baby, I didn’t mean to scare you. But this is so exciting! We’re finally on our way to becoming the very first mother-daughter pair of Miss Scarlets!” Ginger held Felicity at arm’s length and beamed at her, then pulled her close again and did a little happy dance, jiggling her awkwardly up and down. “Everything is going exactly like we always dreamed it would. This win is right there for the taking, baby. All you have to do now is reach out and grab it.”

Over her mom’s shoulder, Felicity spotted the little brunette island in the sea of red and saw that her disgruntled classmates still hadn’t stopped glaring at her. She quickly looked away. Though everything did seem to be going according to plan, all those cold dark eyes reminded Felicity that she didn’t deserve any of the praise she was getting. She didn’t deserve to be competing in the pageant at all.

Because unbeknownst to the adoring crowd, Felicity’s hair color—that bright coppery red that made her so enviable in Scarletville—was completely artificial.

There were only two other people in the entire world who knew her secret. One was her mom. The other was her stylist, Rose Vaughn.

Gabby’s mother.


Excerpted from Red by Alison Cherry. Copyright © 2014 by Alison Cherry.
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.

Reckless by William Nicholson – Extract

Reckless

PRELUDE

Tea at Cliveden: September 1943

Rupert Blundell did not want to go to tea with the princess. He was unsure how to address her, and he was shy with girls at the best of times. Lord Mountbatten, his commanding officer, brushed aside his murmurs of dissent.

‘Nancy wants some young people,’ he said. ‘You’re a young person, and you’re available.’

Rupert was twenty-six, which felt to himself both young and old. Princess Elizabeth was of course much younger, but being heir to the throne she was unlikely to be short of savoir-faire.

‘And anyway,’ said Mountbatten, ‘you’ll like Cliveden. They still have a pastry cook there, and it has one of the best views in England.’

So Rupert put on his rarely worn No.2 dress uniform, which fitted poorly round the crotch, and reported to COHQ in Richmond Terrace. A car was to pick him up from here and drive him to Cliveden, Lady Astor’s country house.

‘Very smart, Rupert,’ said Joyce Wedderburn, passing through on her way back to her office.

‘I’m under orders,’ said Rupert glumly.

‘Aren’t the trousers a bit small for you?’

‘In parts.’

‘Well, I think you look very dashing.’

She gave him one of her half-smiles that he could never interpret, that suggested she meant something other than what she seemed to be saying. But Rupert liked Joyce. He could talk to her more freely than to the other girls. There was no nonsense about her, and she had a fiancé in the Navy, in minesweepers.

The car arrived: a Humber Imperial Landaulette, driven by one of Lady Astor’s chauffeurs. Its rear hood was down, and sitting in the wide back seat was an American officer of about Rupert’s own age. He introduced himself as Captain McGeorge Bundy, an aide attached to Admiral Alan R. Kirk, commander of the Allied amphibious forces.

‘Call me Mac,’ he said.

He revealed to Rupert that they were to represent the wartime allies at this tea party. There was to be a Russian too. All this in a crisp monotone, as if to impart the information in the most efficient way possible.

The Russian was news to Rupert.

‘I’ve no idea what we’re supposed to do,’ he said. ‘Have you?’ ‘I think the idea is the princess wants to meet people nearer to her own age,’ said Bundy. ‘What for?’

‘Maybe it’s a blind date.’ Bundy smiled, but with his mouth only. ‘How’d you like to marry your future queen?’

‘God preserve me,’ said Rupert.

Mac Bundy was trim and sleek, with sand-coloured hair brushed back smoothly over his high forehead. He wore wirerimmed glasses. His navy-blue uniform had every appearance of being excellently cut. Looking at him, Rupert felt as he did with so many Americans that they were the physically perfected version of the model, while he himself was a poor first draft.

He shifted on the car seat to ease the itching in his trousers.

The landaulette drove through Hyde Park, past the Serpentine. From where he was sitting he could see himself reflected in the driver’s mirror: his long face, his thick-rimmed spectacles, his protruding ears. He looked away, out of long habit.

‘So who got you into this?’ said Bundy. ‘Mountbatten. He’s a friend of Lady Astor’s.’

‘Kirk fingered me,’ said Bundy, adding in a lower tone, with a glance at the driver, ‘His actual order was, “Go and humour the old bat.”’

They exchanged details of their postings. Bundy confessed he owed his staff job to family connections.

‘I wanted a combat posting. My mother had other ideas.’

His father, Harvey Bundy, was currently a senior adviser in the US War Department under Henry Stimson.

‘So this princess,’ he said. ‘I hear she’s all there.’

‘All there?’ said Rupert.

Bundy curved one hand before his chest.

‘Oh, right,’ said Rupert. ‘I wouldn’t know.’

He had never thought of the seventeen-year-old Princess Elizabeth as a sexual being.

‘Don’t worry,’ said Bundy. ‘I’m not going to wolf-whistle.’

Rupert looked at the passing shopfronts and was silent. War-time was supposed to change things, break down the barriers. But even when the barriers were down, you had to do it yourself. No one was going to do it for you. There was no one you could talk to about these things. No one in all the world. About feeling ashamed. About wanting it so much.

The car emerged onto the Bayswater Road.

‘I asked round for tips on meeting royalty,’ said Bundy. ‘Apparently you call her ma’am, and you don’t sit until she sits.’

‘Ma’am? The poor girl’s only seventeen.’ ‘So what are you going to call her? Liz?’ ‘In the family she’s called Lilibet.’ ‘How’d you know that?’

‘Mountbatten told me.’

‘Okay. Lilibet it is. Have another slice of pie, Lilibet. Want to take a walk in the shrubbery, Lilibet?’

Rupert glanced nervously at the back of the chauffeur’s head, but he showed no signs that he was listening.

‘Is that what you do with girls?’ said Rupert. ‘Take them into the shrubbery?’

‘I’ll be honest with you,’ said Bundy. ‘I’m no expert.’ He leaned closer and spoke low. ‘When I was twelve years old we went to Paris, and my mother took me to the Folies-Bergère. The way she tells it, I got bored by the naked girls and went outside to read a book.’

‘And did you?’

‘That’s her story.’

The car was now turning into Kensington Palace Gardens. There on the pavement outside the Soviet embassy was a young Russian officer, standing stiffly, almost at attention.

‘Our noble ally,’ said Bundy.

The Russian had a square, serious face and heavy eyebrows. He gazed inscrutably on the open-backed car as it pulled up beside him.

‘You are the party for Lady Astor?’

He sounded exactly like an American.

‘That’s us,’ said Bundy. ‘Jump in.’

He squeezed onto the seat beside them, and the car set off down Notting Hill Gate to Holland Park. His name was Oleg Troyanovsky. His father had been the Soviet Ambassador in Washington before the war, and he had been sent to school at Sidwell Friends. Within minutes he and Bundy had discovered mutual acquaintances.

‘Of course I know the Hayes boys,’ said the Russian. ‘I was on the tennis team with Oliver Hayes.’

‘So what are you doing in London?’

‘Joint committee on psych warfare.’ The wrinkles between his eyebrows deepened as he spoke. ‘My father arranged it, to keep me away from the eastern front.’

‘Check,’ said Bundy. ‘Privilege knows no boundaries.’

‘And here we are, going to tea with a princess.’

They grinned at each other, bound together by a shared awareness of the absurdity of their situation. The car picked up speed coming out of Hammersmith and onto the Great West Road. The wind blew away their words, and conversation languished. They looked out at the endless line of suburban villas rolling by, and thought their own thoughts.

The war had gone on too long. It was no longer a crisis, with the excitement that crisis brings with it, and the promise of change. It had become an intermission. The phrase most often heard was ‘for the duration’. Shops were closed ‘for the duration’. Trains ran a restricted service ‘for the duration’. Life had paused, for the duration.

Meanwhile, thought Rupert, my youth is slipping away. Last month Mountbatten had accepted a new appointment, as Commander-in-Chief, South East Asia.

‘You’ll come with me, won’t you, Rupert? I must have my old team round me.’

Rupert was more than willing to go. A brighter sun, a bluer sky. Maybe even a new dawn.

The landaulette turned off the main road at last and made its way up a wooded hill, through the pretty red-brick village of Taplow, and so to the great gates of Cliveden. A long drive wound through a wilderness of untended woodland, until quite suddenly there appeared before them a fountain, in which winged and naked figures sported round a giant shell. No water flowed, and the angels, or goddesses, wore an embarrassed air, as if sensing that their nakedness was no longer appropriate. The car made a sharp left turn. Ahead lay a broad beech-lined avenue, at the end of which stood a cream-coloured palace.

‘Ah!’ sighed Troyanovsky. ‘What it is to be rich!’

‘Not rich,’ said Bundy. ‘Very rich. They don’t come richer than the Astors.’

The house grew as they approached it, revealing on either side of the central block two curving wings, reaching out as if to embrace the awed visitor. To the right there rose an ornate water tower, faced with a clock that had perhaps once been gold, but was now a tarnished brown. The grass of the flanking lawns grew long round ancient mulberry trees.

The chauffeur drew the car to a stop before the porte cochère, and a butler emerged from the house to greet them.

‘Her ladyship and her Royal Highness will join you shortly, gentlemen.’

They followed the butler into an immense oak-panelled hall, hung with faded tapestries. At one end, before a carved stone fireplace, tea had been laid out on two small tables. To the left of the fireplace hung a full-size portrait of a young woman in a gauzy pale-blue dress, her hands clasped behind her back, her head turned coquettishly to the viewer.

‘That is Nancy Astor,’ said Bundy with crisp authority.

‘But she’s beautiful!’ exclaimed Troyanovsky. He stood back to appreciate her, evidently as a woman rather than as a work of art.

‘She was younger then, of course.’

Rupert was puzzled by the painting. The pose was unusual: a slight forward tilt from the waist, as if she was on the point of running away.

Bundy examined the waiting tea. There was fruitcake topped with marzipan. A silver dish with a lid stood warming on a spirit lamp. He lifted the lid to discover a nest of small scones.

‘What do we have to do to deserve this?’

‘We could link arms and perform a dance,’ said Troyanovsky gravely. It took the others a moment to realise he was making fun. ‘Or perhaps we could sing together, to represent the harmony of the Alliance.’

They grinned at that.

‘And youth,’ said Rupert. ‘We’re here to represent youth.’ ‘I’m not young,’ said Bundy. ‘Who wants to be young? I want to be a grown man, in charge of my own destiny.’

‘Only an American could say that,’ said Troyanovsky. ‘We who come from older civilisations know that we will never be in charge of our own destinies.’

He looked to Rupert as he spoke, his heavy brow wrinkling. Rupert nodded to be friendly, unsure whether or not he agreed. ‘But you know what?’ said Bundy. ‘I’m all for this idea of us singing together.’

He started to croon the current hit by the Andrews Sisters, making small hand movements before him in the air.

‘There were three little sisters
Three little sisters
And each one only in her teens—’

A door opened, and he fell silent. In swept a small tornado of a woman, followed a few paces behind by a young girl.

‘Oh my God! They’re here already! Make yourselves at home, boys! Which one of you is Bundy?’

Mac Bundy presented himself.

‘I knew your father, I knew your mother, I warned them not to marry, and if they had to marry, not to produce any children. Bound to be morons. Are you a moron?’

‘No, Lady Astor,’ said Bundy, smoothly unperturbed. ‘I don’t believe I am.’

‘Humph. We’ll see about that.’

She was in her mid-sixties, her face now bony, but her bright blue eyes as brilliant as in the portrait. She held her head high, and moved in hops and starts, as if unable to contain the energy within her. Her voice was thin and crackly, half American, half English.

‘This is just an informal get-together. No need to stand on ceremony.’

The three young officers were introduced to the young girl, who turned out to be Princess Elizabeth. She was even smaller than Lady Astor, and had wavy dark-brown hair, and very white skin. Her modest knee-length white dress, patterned with pink flowers, could not disguise the fact that she was, as Bundy had put it, ‘all there’.

‘Come along, Lilibet,’ said Lady Astor. ‘You sit here. You know no one can sit down until you’ve sat down. God, what a country! How I’ve stood it all these years I’ll never know.’

They sat down. Their hostess poured out tea, talking as she did so.

‘I’ve told Lilibet that family of hers keeps her far too shut away, she never meets anyone at all, so I promised her some young men, and here you are. You must help yourselves to the scones. It was Lilibet’s idea to invite our allies, and a very good idea if I may say so. You three’ – teapot in mid-air, piercing blue eyes fixed on the young men – ‘you are the future of the world. You must make a better job of it than we have.’

‘With Her Royal Highness’s help,’ said Bundy, leaning his upper body forward as if attempting a bow while sitting down. ‘Oh, the royals can’t do a thing,’ said Lady Astor. ‘No one pays the slightest attention to a word they say. Of course, everyone loves them, but only in the way you love a family pet.’ She reached out one hand to pat the shy young princess. ‘Do you mind me going on like this, darling? Are you shocked?’

‘Not at all,’ said the princess in a small clear voice. ‘But I’d like to hear what the gentlemen have to say.’

So she wasn’t such a little girl after all.

‘That’s telling me,’ said Lady Astor. ‘What have you got to say, boys?’

There followed a brief silence.

‘Well, ma’am,’ said Bundy. ‘I think we all agree that this war will be over sometime next year.’

‘Oh, I do hope so,’ said the princess. ‘That’s what the officers at Windsor tell me too.’

Rupert was looking at the princess’s hands. Her hands were so delicate, the nails varnished a very pale pink. She was interlacing her fingers in her lap, nervously squeezing them.

‘I’m so bored by the war,’ said Lady Astor. ‘Can’t we talk about something else?’

‘I’m not sure I would say I was bored exactly,’ said the princess.

Her enunciation was so clear that everything she said sounded carefully considered. Her earnest gaze fell on Rupert, as if inviting him to complete her thought.

‘It’s a hard feeling to describe,’ said Rupert. ‘One feels bored and frightened at the same time. And then beneath it all there’s this feeling that one’s real life is waiting to begin.’

The princess looked at him in surprise.

‘Yes,’ she said.

Then she smiled. Rupert realised for the first time that she was pretty.

‘It’s all right for you young people,’ said Lady Astor with a grunt. ‘Some of us are waiting for our life to end.’

‘Not for many years yet, I hope,’ said Bundy.

‘Look at that!’ She pointed at the portrait hanging by the fireplace. ‘I have that staring at me every day, reminding me how old I am.’

‘But it’s a wonderful portrait,’ said Troyanovsky. ‘I have been admiring it.’

‘Don’t you think I’m standing in an odd way? It’s because

Sargent had this idea of painting me with my little boy on my back.’ She stood up and assumed the same pose as in the painting, hands clasped behind her back. ‘But Bill was only one year old at the time, and he just wouldn’t keep still, so Sargent painted him out.’

‘It is a very fine portrait,’ said the princess, gazing at it.

‘I can’t look at it any more,’ said Lady Astor. ‘Don’t grow old, my dear. It’s too tiresome.’

‘I would like to be a little older,’ said the princess.

As she spoke she glanced at Rupert. This gave him an odd feeling. It was as if some secret understanding had sprung up between the two of them.

The princess turned to Troyanovsky.

‘Tell me about Russia,’ she said. ‘I know so little about your country.’

‘Well, ma’am,’ said Troyanovsky, ‘if I’m to tell you about my country I must speak about the war. We have been fighting a life and death battle.’

‘Yes, I know,’ said the princess. ‘We all so admire Mr Stalin.’ ‘Humph!’ said Lady Astor. ‘I met Joe Stalin.’

‘Did you?’ said Troyanovsky, much surprised. ‘When was that?’ ‘1931. I went to Russia with George Bernard Shaw. We were both introduced to Uncle Joe. Shaw was all over him, of course.

When it came to my turn, I said, “Mr Stalin, why have you slaughtered so many of your own people?”’

The Russian’s teacup froze halfway to his lips.

‘What did he reply?’

‘Some nonsense about defending the revolution. What could he say? The man’s a mass murderer.’

Troyanovsky was silent. The groove deepened between his eyebrows.

‘The Russians are fighting like lions,’ said Bundy. ‘We owe them a great debt.’

‘The revolution is still young,’ Troyanovsky said.

‘I hope,’ said the princess, speaking earnestly, ‘that after the war we can all go on being friends.’

‘I believe our nations can and must be friends, ma’am,’ said Bundy. ‘I think we’ve all had our fill of hatred. We may not always see things the same way, but I believe we can agree to disagree.’

‘I expect you’ll think I’m very naive,’ said the princess, ‘but I do so much want this to be the last war we ever have to fight.’

‘There will always be war,’ declared Troyanovsky. ‘But why?’

‘Human nature, ma’am.’

‘I disagree,’ said Bundy. ‘I believe we have the power to control our impulses.’ Quite suddenly he became vehement. ‘There’s evil in all of us, no doubt about that, but we must grow up, and accept it, and manage it. We have to live with our imperfections. You people’ – this was to the Russian – ‘you’re perfectionists. You believe you’re creating the perfect society. I think that’s dangerous. It permits your leaders to take extreme measures.’

‘War is an extreme measure, I think.’ The Russian nodded his big head, frowning. ‘In the West, you are pragmatists. We are idealists. But you know, in spite of this, we want much the same as you. To eat. To sleep safe in our beds. To go dancing. To talk late into the night about the wrongs of the world.’

‘So after the war,’ said the princess, ‘when we who are young now are old enough to influence the affairs of the world, let’s agree that we’ll have no more wars.’

‘Hear, hear!’ said the young officers, raising their teacups. Rupert was touched by the young princess’s gentle diplomacy. He sensed that it was more than good manners, that she was genuinely distressed by conflict. What a curious mixture she was, he thought. Scrupulous in the performance of her duty; her face so serious, but still lit by the lingering innocence of childhood.

Lady Astor now rose. This was the cue for the gentlemen to rise.

‘I must show our guests the view from the terrace,’ she said. The princess rose, smoothing her dress down as she did so.

Lady Astor led the way across the adjoining library and out through French windows.

Rupert found the princess was by his side.

‘So you feel your real life is waiting to begin,’ she said to him, speaking softly.

‘I do, ma’am,’ he said.

‘And what will it be, this real life?’

‘I wish I could tell you it’ll be a life of honourable service to my country,’ said Rupert. ‘But I’m afraid all I mean is love.’

‘Ah, love.’

They came out onto the terrace.

‘There it is,’ said Lady Astor with a sweep of one arm. ‘England. The land we’re fighting for.’

The view was indeed spectacular. Below the terrace stretched a long formal lawn, laid out in two parterres. To the east rose a wooded hill. The river flowed round the foot of this hill, concealed by trees, here and there glinting into view. Beyond the river the land stretched for miles to the south, to Maidenhead and beyond. Above it all rose a peaceful late-afternoon sky.

‘Did you know,’ said Lady Astor, ‘that the first ever performance of “Rule Britannia” took place right here? Two hundred years ago, at a big party down there, given by the Prince of Wales.’

She pointed at the long lawn below them.

‘So beautiful, so untouched by war,’ said Troyanovsky. ‘Hitler could have marched his armies up this valley. Instead he turned them on my homeland.’

They strolled slowly down the length of the terrace. Once again Rupert found himself by the princess’s side.

‘So you’re not married, Captain Blundell?’

‘No, ma’am.’

‘That is a happiness still to come.’

A conventional enough remark, but there was a wistfulness to her tone.

‘I hope so, ma’am.’

She then turned to make conversation with Bundy, and Rupert was left with his thoughts.

‘There’s someone for everyone, Rupert,’ his mother used to tell him. But all you had to do was look around you to know this was not true. Add together the solitary young, the unmarried, the divorced, the widowed and the solitary old, and it was hard not to conclude that loneliness was the natural condition of humanity.

It was now time for the princess to return to Windsor Castle. Her detective appeared as if by magic.

‘I’m ready, Mr Giles,’ she said.

She shook hands with each of the young officers. ‘Remember,’ she said. ‘No more wars.’

Lady Astor accompanied the princess to her car. Left alone, the young men relaxed. They stood looking out over the great view, reluctant to leave.

‘So where do you go next, Rupert?’ said Bundy. ‘India. Mountbatten’s taking command out there.’

‘Me, I’m in London until the second front.’

‘Pray it may come soon,’ said the Russian.

‘My dad says one more year,’ said Bundy, ‘and it’ll all be over.’

Troyanovsky took out a pack of cigarettes and offered them to the others. They both declined. He lit up, and inhaled deeply.

‘Your princess,’ he said to Rupert, ‘she is charming.’

‘I agree,’ said Rupert. ‘I thought she was lovely.’

‘No life for a girl, though,’ said Bundy. ‘She should be out every night dancing, not fretting over the future of the world.’

‘Leave that to Lady Astor,’ said Rupert.

They laughed at that. Then the Russian shook his head.

‘What she said to Stalin, that I find it hard to believe.’

‘But she’s right,’ said Bundy.

Troyanovsky puffed on his cigarette, frowning.

‘The day will come,’ he said slowly, ‘when you will ask yourself not what is right, but what is possible.’

‘Who’s the pragmatist now?’ said Bundy.

‘I think I can claim that honour,’ said Rupert, peacemaking. ‘We British have a long history of calling a spade a spade, and then getting some other fellow to do the digging.’

Bundy smiled his smile at that.

‘But your princess,’ said Troyanovsky, ‘what she said to us, that was good. No more wars.’

‘We’re all with you there,’ said Bundy.

‘So we must make it be so,’ said the Russian. ‘We three.’

He put out one large hand. Rupert understood his meaning, and clasped it. After a moment Bundy put his hand on top of theirs.

A solitary plane appeared in the far distance and buzzed slowly across the sky. The sun dropped below the clouds and threw shafts of golden light over the landscape. Rupert felt a sudden rush of fellow feeling for the other two. Partly it was this odd triple hand-clasp that they seemed unable to break, and partly the conviction that such a moment would never come again. There really was a symbolic power to their presence, joined together on the long terrace, looking out over England.

‘No more wars,’ said Rupert. ‘Wouldn’t that just be something?’

part  one

Warning

1945 – 1950

1

It was the colours they all talked about, the ones who witnessed the Trinity test. A brilliant yellow-white light, a searing light many times brighter than the midday sun. Then a ball of fire, an orange-red glow. Then a cloud of coloured smoke pouring upwards, red and yellow, like clouds at sunset, turning golden, purple, violet, grey, blue. Observers ten miles away saw a blue colour surrounding the smoke cloud, then a bright yellow ring near the ground, spreading out towards them. This was the shock wave. When it arrived there was a rumbling sound, as of thunder.

Brilliant white, fire-red, orange, gold, purple, violet, grey, blue. Sunset skies and thunder at dawn in Alamagordo, New Mexico.

President Harry S. Truman was not in the country. He had sailed for Europe a week earlier on the USS Augusta. It was an uneventful crossing, with an orchestra to play during dinner, and a different movie shown each evening. A Song to Remember, To Have and Have Not, The Princess and the Pirate, Something for the Boys. The president was on his way to the final meeting of the wartime Allies at Potsdam, just outside Berlin. He was dreading it.

Truman had never wanted to be Roosevelt’s vice president. ‘Tell him to go to hell,’ he replied to the offer. ‘I’m for Jimmy Byrnes.’ But Roosevelt wanted the plain-speaking man from Missouri, and he got his way. During Truman’s brief three months in the vice presidency, Roosevelt neither informed him nor consulted him. When Roosevelt died and he found himself president, Truman told reporters, ‘Boys, I don’t know if you fellas ever had a load of hay fall on you . . .’

After a further brief three months as the leader of the free world, with the war in the Far East still raging, Truman now faced the task of standing up to Stalin. The Potsdam Conference would decide the shape and future of the postwar world.

The Augusta sailed up the Scheldt estuary cheered by Belgian and Dutch crowds, and docked at Antwerp on Sunday, July 15 1945. A C-54 plane called the Sacred Cow flew the president and his party to Berlin that same day. The Potsdam Conference was due to begin on Tuesday, July 17. Harry Truman felt seriously out of his depth.

The presidential entourage took up residence at No. 2 Kaiserstrasse, in the movie colony of Babelsberg. The grand but ugly yellow-painted villa had been built in the 1890s by a wealthy publisher, and most recently was occupied by the head of the Nazi film industry. It stood in tree-studded grounds on the banks of Lake Gribnitz. Truman said the building put him in mind of the Kansas City Union Station.

That evening, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson received a coded telegram from General Groves, who led the Manhattan Project, the top secret mission to build the atomic bomb.

Operated on this morning, diagnosis not yet complete but results seem satisfactory and already exceed expectations.

Stimson at once took the message to Truman. Truman was pleased but cautious. He would wait for the full report.

Stimson ate privately that evening with his assistant, Harvey Bundy. Stimson was now in his late seventies, and in poor health. He had his suspicions that he was being cut out of the key decisions on the war. Bundy, brought in by him as his Special Assistant on Atomic Matters, was an old friend, and like himself a Yale man, a Skull and Bones member, and a lawyer.

‘You think we’re going to have to do this, Harvey?’

‘Have to, no,’ said Bundy. ‘Going to, yes.’

‘You think the Japs’ll surrender anyway?’

‘You’ve read the Purple intercepts,’ said Bundy. ‘We all know they’re desperate for a way out.’

‘It may take an invasion.’

‘Please God, no,’ said Harvey Bundy. ‘My boy Mac’s joined the Ninety-Seventh; he’s determined to get in some real fighting. His division’s slated for the push into mainland Japan. Kay’s half crazy with worry.’

‘If this gadget’s half what they say it is,’ said Stimson, ‘there’s no way your boy’s going to see action. You tell Kay to relax.’

The next day Truman had his first informal meeting with Stalin, at what was now called the Little White House. They discussed how to handle the continuing war with Japan. Intercepted cables revealed that the Japanese were pleading with the Soviets to broker a peace deal short of unconditional surrender, that would leave the emperor in place. The Allies wanted the Soviets to enter the war against Japan, late though it was. Stalin readily agreed. The declaration would be made by August 15, he said.

Fini Japs when that comes about, wrote Truman in his diary.

That evening a courier arrived carrying General Groves’ full report on the Trinity test. Truman read it at once, and gave it to his secretary of state, Jimmy Byrnes, and to Henry Stimson. Stimson showed it to Harvey Bundy. It was electrifying.

‘For the first time in history,’ Groves wrote, ‘there was a nuclear explosion. And what an explosion!’ He estimated its power at the equivalent of twenty thousand tons of TNT. He described the blast effects with memorable details. A steel tower evaporated. A window was broken over a hundred miles away. The light of the explosion was visible from El Paso, almost two hundred miles away. A blind woman saw the light. Groves called it ‘the birth of a new age, a great new force to be used for good or evil. No man-made phenomenon of such tremendous power has ever occurred before.’

Later, alone with Harvey Bundy, Stimson pondered the mighty issue before them.

‘Are we unleashing a monster here, Harvey?’

‘You want my opinion,’ said Bundy, ‘I’d say we can’t come this far and spend this much money and not use it. And that’s not even an opinion. Once it can be used, it’s going to be used.’

‘But why?’

‘You ever get given a new toy for Christmas? You ever got told you can have the shiny new toy, but you can’t play with it?’


Excerpted from Reckless by William Nicholson. Copyright © 2014 by William Nicholson.
First published in Great Britain 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.

Land Where I Flee by Prajwal Parajuly – Extract

Land Where I Flee

The factory looks like a heritage hotel.

As though it houses not drudgeries and machinery and yards of uninteresting linen but priceless artefacts.

Its exterior yellow, light and cheerful, with bay windows gleaming and inviting; the main door, intricately embellished with Ganesha, Shiva and Hanuman in terracotta; two trees – guava and orange – on each side of the building standing guard.

Ropes of Buddhist prayer flags strung high up between the two trees – blue, white, red, green, yellow – flapping, fluttering, almost flying.The inscriptions on them – symbols, sutras, mantras – sending out positive energy. Keeping evil forces at bay.

The cut-outs of the couple advertising the factory’s products on the garage door: once clad in Western clothes, now wearing Nepali outfits.

The male is in cream daura-suruwal. His top, the daura, button-, collarand cuff-less, the flaps in its front held in place by the only visible pair of strings across the chest.The trousers, the suruwal, snugcuffed, tapered, their excess length gathering at the feet.The woman, formerly depicted in a black dress, is now wearing gunyu-cholo, her green gunyu a sari whose loose end is tucked into the front. The blouse, her red-and-white rhombus-patterned cholo, bulging at the chest but otherwise similar to the daura.

The topiary on the marigold-covered lawn reads: NEUPANEY TEXTILES. The squash climbers on the trellis conceal stencilled inscriptions that reveal: NEUPANEY GARMENTS EST. 1984. A polished copper plaque by the entrance of the building announces: NEUPANEY APPAREL INC., KALIMPONG, GORKHALAND.

one

THE PROBLEM WITH REUNIONS

Blowing thick, circular smoke that mirrored the slowly accumulating cirrus clouds in the sky, Chitralekha surveyed the scene unfolding before her from the balcony. Her choice of cigarette – the kind that found favour among the servants, coolies and construction workers of Gangtok – confounded her doctor as much as the way she smoked it: she puffed on the tobacco wrapping held in an ‘O’ of her forefinger and thumb. Her technique may have been considered uncouth and the tobacco flakes in the beedi posed more harm than those inside an ordinary cigarette, but Chitralekha preferred relishing her poison the way she did. Like the ring that for more than seventy years had swung between her nostrils, stretching the septum, the beedi represented the familiar. With so much change imminent, she found comfort in the familiar.

Her grandchildren, who lived in various countries whose names she could barely pronounce and whose shores she had no intention of visiting, would be here soon for the Chaurasi, her eighty-fourth birthday, the preparations for which were in full swing. The garden around her cottage was abuzz with activity. The priest was not satisfied with the length of bamboos that would be used for the sacred kiln and expressed his discontent in a nasal voice together with a perpetual thudding of his walking stick. The eunuch servant, who swept the driveway more for Chitralekha’s comic relief than to actually contribute to the bustle around her, wasn’t happy with the priest and made her disdain known with loud off-pitch singing that drowned out the old man’s drone. A few painters, mostly oblivious to the disagreements surrounding them, lazily splashed the walls with vertical patterns that often became zigzags. Chitralekha did not like the look of the walls now.The chipping layer of red the workers were trying to paint over was too strong for a coat of white to dilute it; they’d have to paint twice, maybe three times. A jeep tottered a few days prematurely into the driveway with a thousand marigolds that the eunuch would soon have to sew into garlands to be festooned from the roof and to deck the windows.

‘We need competence around here,’ the Brahmin priest whined. ‘We all talk too much.’

‘Aye, the Brahmin thinks we all talk too much,’ the eunuch retorted. ‘A Brahmin thinks we talk too much. Soon, he will tell us we eat too much sugar.’

‘It’s useless talking to your kind of people, Prasanti,’ said the priest, while squinting at the terrace to lock his eyes with Chitralekha’s. He failed because she looked away. ‘All you do is talk, talk and talk.’

‘Oh, and I sing and dance, too,’ Prasanti shouted. ‘Sing, dance and clean while you stand there and order everyone around. Don’t forget I am a Brahmin, too, Pundit-jee.’

‘You should be out on the streets singing and dancing with your kind. Were it not for the generosity of Aamaa here, you’d not have a home.’

‘And were it not for the kindness of Aamaa here, you wouldn’t have a rupiya to feed that bulging stomach of yours, Pundit-jee. We’re both the same.’

The priest looked up at Chitralekha again. She knew he expected her to intervene, but she was enjoying the exchange too much to put a stop to it. She had taught Prasanti a lot of things, but the eunuch had taken it upon herself to puncture the Brahmin’s ego on a regular basis, and to mediate just when a performance this flawless had been delivered would be a shame. It was important that the priest be put in his place because every festival brought about a resurgence in his belief that he was irreplaceable.This translated into a general disregard for the opinion of everyone around him, finding fault with matters as trivial as the height of the pedestal on which he was to be seated during ceremonies and making purchases Chitralekha seldom authorized.

‘What has the world come to?’ The Brahmin shook his head. ‘A half-sex thinks she and a priest are one and the same.’

‘Yes, this half-sex has to prepare for the arrival of Kamal Moktan now,’ Prasanti said. ‘I am a hijra who knows important people – unlike you, Pundit-jee.’

‘Yes, to be sure, he must be coming all the way from Darjeeling to see you.’

‘To see Aamaa, but at least I get to greet him.’

‘He must be looking forward to that.’

‘As much as I am to seeing you leave.’

It was time for Chitralekha to make her presence felt.

‘Prasanti, show some respect to Pundit-jee,’ she said. ‘He will leave only after you’ve served him tea.’

This would do it. The hijra had done well. The priest’s selfimportance was sufficiently deflated. He would not insist on seven-hour-long ceremonies and outrageous donations. With this minor issue taken care of, Chitralekha could now prepare for her meeting with Kamal Moktan, who headed the new political party that promised the residents of the neighbouring Darjeeling district their beloved Gorkhaland, a separate state from West Bengal, of which they were now an ill-treated part. Moktan had infused the Gorkhaland movement, largely stagnant since it hit its crescendo in the eighties, with new hope. He probably needed to talk to Chitralekha about making the movement bigger and better.

Chitralekha would have preferred to meet with Moktan up on the terrace, but it would be too noisy. Prasanti had already laid claim to a makeshift storeroom in the west corner of the rooftop that now housed a huge cauldron of rice-flour batter prepared by her voluble recruits – two miserable, pitch-dark girls from the neighbourhood – that they would soon fry into selrotis, those crispy doughnuts that Chitralekha had no great fondness for and from which she could seldom escape during festivals and celebrations. It’d be interesting to see how the politician would react to his earnest solicitation for donation being punctuated with guffaws from the trio inside the storeroom, but the rare October drizzle that looked like it would arrive in a few minutes was as much a deterrent as the clanging of utensils and the giggling fits that had already begun.

Her office was a mess. Prasanti had wiped clean all the pictures on the walls but had conveniently ignored the hillock of paperwork that had built up on the desk. The ashtray was overflowing with beedi butts. The cleanliness of the office didn’t matter much to Chitralekha as long as the photos on the walls – two of her with the governor of Sikkim, one with the chief minister and a few with various important people – were spotless. She noticed with consternation that a picture she had long before relegated to the cupboard, the one with the ex-chief minister whose chances of coming back to power were as high as those of Prasanti’s giving birth, was enjoying pride of place between the photo in which she was shown receiving an award from the governor and another in which she and the tourism minister smiled gaily into the camera. Prasanti could be so useless.

‘Prasanti,’ Chitralekha called out, her voice echoing through the house. She repeated the servant’s name a few times, aware that the eunuch feigned deafness when she felt like it.

‘These sel-rotis are so round.’ Prasanti walked in, coughing, a few minutes later. ‘Even rounder than my head. But the smoke is killing us.’

‘Don’t talk too much, Prasanti. Why have you hung this picture up?’ Chitralekha rapped at the offending frame, almost knocking it down and wishing it would fall when the picture managed to stay put.

‘Was it not to come out?’ Prasanti innocently asked.

‘Why would it, fool? Why would you find a picture from the cupboard and hang it up?’

‘All these photos you’ve taken are with ugly men. I wanted a picture of you with a good-looking man. He is the only handsome man with whom you’ve been shot.’

‘And why would I, an eighty-three-year-old widow, want a picture with a handsome man, Prasanti?’ Chitralekha could feel her fury abate.

‘They are better than these ugly men. Some have no hair, and this one has more hair sprouting from his ears than he does on his head. This one could braid his nose hair with a rubber-band.’

‘So, you hung the other picture up?’

‘Yes,’ Prasanti answered impudently. ‘I want pictures with handsome men, so must you.’

‘But Basnett will never come to power. How would a picture with a loser like him make me look good?’

‘Good for you then – at least other women won’t take pictures with him.’

Chitralekha stifled a smile, ordered Prasanti to consign the picture to where it belonged, had her abort the task mid-way and asked for the photo to be propped back at its new home.

‘See, you like his handsome face, too, don’t you?’ Prasanti giggled.

‘No, I don’t. Go make sel-roti. You’ll waste a few hours putting that silly picture back in the cupboard.’

Moktan was late. The meeting was scheduled for three, and Chitralekha had specifically told the politician’s jabbering assistant that she didn’t like to be kept waiting. It would be another fifteen minutes before a fleet of cars slithered into the driveway carrying Moktan and his entourage, their black Nepali hats perched pharisaically on their heads.

The bell chimed. Prasanti had been instructed not to open the door until she counted to sixty twice. Chitralekha walked to the foyer so she could hear better.

‘Is Chitralekha Guraamaa there?’ one of the men asked.

‘She’s at a meeting,’ Prasanti answered.

‘I am Kamal Moktan,’ Moktan said.

‘I am Prasanti.’

She had been trained well. The men laughed. Prasanti giggled with them.

‘I have a meeting with Guraamaa.’

‘She had a meeting with you at three. She waited until 3:05, but when you didn’t come, she took another meeting. She’s busy. Why don’t you wait in the garden?’

One of the men was quick to quip, ‘The rain has stopped, sir.The sun might be out any moment. It’s better to wait out in the warm than inside.’

Five minutes lapsed and then ten. Prasanti brought the men tea and Good-Day biscuits. ‘She will be out in another five minutes. She told me she was meeting with only you.The others will have to wait here.’

Prasanti had done her job, once again redeeming herself in her mistress’s eyes. Kamal Moktan would be malleable now.

‘Namaste, Guraamaa,’ Moktan said sincerely, straightening his jacket, at the entrance of Chitralekha’s office. ‘Sorry I was late. The roads are bad because of the landslides in Rangpo, you know.’

‘Yes, I know.The last time our chief minister was here, he told me he always started an hour early to see me because he didn’t want to keep me waiting. Starting an hour early even when he lives in Gangtok is practical.’

‘I’ll take note of that,’ Moktan said, taking a seat. ‘I am sorry if I was late, but we enjoyed the tea and biscuits outside.’

‘So, why did you want to meet me?’

Moktan rubbed his hands together as though warming them.The action bored Chitralekha even before all the verbosity tumbled out.

She had had enough experience with politicians to know that this one had a long speech planned, and she’d have to find her way out of it. The Nepali-speaking people of Darjeeling were stupid to rest their hopes on this man to get them a separate state.

‘You know the Gorkhaland movement sometimes needs elderly people to encourage the youngsters, especially an elderly person as respected as you in society.’ There’d be a lot of repetition, a little flattery, allusions to her old age and the wisdom that came with it, her generosity and how important she was. ‘You haven’t given us your full endorsement since we started. I understand that you are from Sikkim now, but we all know your roots are in Kalimpong, and that’s where you own your first and most symbolic factory. Unlike most people in Sikkim, you haven’t chosen to distance yourself from the great cause of Gorkhaland. We would be highly obliged if you’d give a speech about the importance of Gorkhaland and how I’d help achieve it because of my devotion to its people.’

‘Why me?’ she asked. ‘It’s interesting that you should ask me.’

‘I have a cousin’s cousin called Rajeev.’

‘I am glad I know his name.’

‘He completed his engineering degree from Manipal in Rangpo. All his friends from Sikkim have already got government jobs. He was among the top students in his class – got better scores than even the Bengalis. He’s yet to find anything.We just have no jobs in Darjeeling – no prospects, nothing.’

‘I can’t find him a job in Sikkim if he’s not from Sikkim.’

‘No, no, that wasn’t what I was going for. If in this speech you could ask people like him – educated and unemployed – to support the movement and tell them that they will find jobs when Gorkhaland happens, which we can attain only if we receive their full support, I’d be really grateful. There is too much cynicism among the educated.’

Sizing up the man before her, Chitralekha concluded that he wasn’t worth inviting to her Chaurasi – he wasn’t a long-term politician like Sikkim’s Subba was. He’d probably be blinded by power, do something stupid and spend his life absconding or rotting in jail. But at almost eighty-four, she didn’t need to think long term. She was already the oldest member of her extended family on all sides –  her father’s, her mother’s and her husband’s – and she was conscious of her mortality. At the most, she had ten years to live. Currying favours with Moktan wouldn’t get her anywhere in the long run, but from now on, she was all about immediate gratification.

‘What do I get out of it?’ she asked.

‘What would you like to suggest? We keep hearing rumours that you’ll stop being directly involved in your business, that one of your grandchildren will take over, but aren’t they all abroad? I have a lot of respect for your decision not to step down even at this age. You are an inspiration to all of us, you see. But please do not ask us for money because we rely on the blessings of people like you to keep ourselves financially afloat.’

‘Just two months ago, I gave two lakhs to your organization. I am not donating any money unless I see a return on that.’ She lit her beedi. It was a habit no amount of amassed wealth would help her get rid of. She also understood that it intimidated most men of power when she smoked in front of them. Her white sari, the loose end of which demurely covered her white head of hair, and smoking just did not go hand in hand.

Kamal smacked his lips. ‘Do you have any suggestions on how we could help you?’

‘This Gorkhaland movement is going nowhere, Kamal-jeeu. We have waited long for something to happen. There’s too much vandalism, too much goondagiri. We need to inspire the people, inflame them. Ask any person from Kurseong or Kalimpong if they have faith in Gorkhaland, and they say no.’

‘Now, even if someone like you says that, we are doomed. We have been doing our best. Just last month a meeting with the West Bengal minister of—’

She cut him short. ‘Meetings don’t achieve anything. Look at us right now. We have met for the past five minutes, but we haven’t talked about anything useful.’

His forehead furrowed. ‘Do you have any suggestions then?’

‘Yes, we need to instil a sense of oneness in our people.Why don’t you mandate that everyone should wear the Nepali costume – daura-suruwals and gunyu-cholos and topis – certain days of the week, especially during festivals and important national holidays? Look at you – you wear a Gurkha hat, but where’s your daura-suruwal? You, more than anyone else, need to set an example. Let’s declare one date – how about the first day be during Tihaar, say sometime next week? – as the date for everyone to wear only Nepali clothes in solidarity.’

‘That’s a good idea. We would like to do that.’

‘Yes, another time for dressing up could be the day of the conference. And I’ll come to it, too.’

‘It’s a good plan – but perhaps next week is too early.’

‘It’s not. This movement requires urgency. It has to start now.’

He looked at her as though surprised at the lack of caveat. ‘Is that it then?’

She glanced at the clock and then at her watch. ‘That’s it, but by now you know that my factory in Kalimpong will be the supplier of all the Nepali clothes to the stores. The clothes are ready. All you have to do is make your announcements. We even have custommade daura-suruwal – no other factory has manufactured the outfit before. Your men will take care of all those stores that don’t buy their clothes in bulk from my factory, right?’

Moktan’s eyes lit up – Chitralekha couldn’t make out if it was in indignation or admiration. She procured a package from under her desk and unwrapped it. In it lay a set of cream daura-suruwal.

‘Yes, I can do that,’ he said.

‘Good,’ she said, wiggling the outfit out of its package. She untied all the four pairs of strings, even those on the inside, of the top. ‘And ten per cent of our profits will be donated to your cause – whether your cause is killing people or getting them their state, I don’t know.’ Next, she focused her attention on the trousers.

‘It’s Gorkhaland,’ Moktan said. ‘A few casualties occur along the way, which is unfortunate, but what revolution didn’t have people die for it? Those who die are either villains or martyrs.’

‘Yes, and you are the hero.’ She chuckled, while holding up the suruwal for her guest to inspect. ‘Your men down there make too much noise. The next time you come to visit me, can you come alone? Let’s plan a meeting three months from now.You could also pick up your donation then.’

Moktan brought his hands together in supplication and perhaps as a precursor to a long-winded speech that Chitralekha would have to prohibit.

‘Look at these nakshaas, Moktan-jeeu – what do you see?’

The politician turned around. His eyes fixated on the picture of her with the ex-chief minister, but he was quiet.

‘That’s who I am, Moktan-jeeu,’ Chitralekha said. ‘I am your friend for a lifetime if you’ve earned my trust. I don’t care if your party is not in power. I don’t care if you will never be re-elected. I’ll forever be faithful to you.’

Moktan listened in silence.

‘You’ll give yourself an opportunity to earn my trust, will you not?’ Chitralekha looked him in the eye. And then she broke into a smile, one that birthed a multitude of lines on her face. ‘You will see to it that your picture will be standing there among these, won’t you?’

Moktan nodded and told her he would have to rush to a meeting with I. K. Subba, the chief minister of Sikkim, who had publicly announced his support for the separatist movement.‘We Gorkhaland people have so much to thank for in people like you and him, Guraamaa,’ he said.‘For too long we’ve been under the oppression of the Bengalis. Gorkhaland as a state has to happen. We have to have a separate state just as you people in Sikkim do. Thank you so much for giving us hope.’

Once Moktan left, Chitralekha summoned Prasanti to banish Basnett’s picture to the cupboard.

‘She now doesn’t want to see a mere picture after she saw such a macho man in person,’ Prasanti teased, tying her shoulder-length hair, receding around the temples, in a chignon. ‘How old is he? Are you sure his caste is Moktan? He looks like a Newaar to me. His eyes aren’t small enough to be a Moktan’s eyes. By the way, the fatty priest is still around, retching poison into anything within reach.’

Chitralekha smoked another beedi. The meeting was a success. She would turn eighty-four in a week. For most of her life, age had meant nothing. In fact, like most women of her generation, she did not even know when her actual birthday was. But this was different. It was a slap on the faces of those diseases that killed you before you reached your prime. Eighty-four was special, for she was now among the very few who had survived that far. To most people, like her pathetic husband, living to that age was an unattainable dream. It was time to go now – maybe stick around for a few years and then die peacefully. Her biggest fear was outliving one of her grandchildren, and going by the surgeries, aches and pains they complained about, she wouldn’t be at all surprised if she lived to see at least one of their deaths. She didn’t want that. She had witnessed too many people dying – her husband, her son, her daughter-in-law. She wouldn’t be able to withstand another tragedy. She had bargained with God that at least this quarter of her life would be devoid of sadness. And she’d see to it that he kept his promise.

*****

Bhagwati could have prevented the pot from toppling over, but her wandering thoughts had betrayed her.

‘Help!’ she screamed. ‘The spaghetti water spilled on me.’

She braced herself for the generous sprinkling of innuendos that would come her way in the distance that she limped between the dishwasher and the kitchen entrance. Brian, the bus boy whose presence triggered in her the same reaction as did the peccadilloes of the ruffians outside the refugee camps, was nowhere to be seen, but Bhagwati had become skilled at discovering creepy figures lurking inside walk-in freezers or behind bulky kitchen equipment, and even in her pain, she looked over her shoulder lest someone should jump at her. Two weeks before, when she allowed her thoughts to compare somewhat unfavourably the Dashain festivities in Bhutan to those in Gangtok, a mouth had come dangerously close to breathing hot, putrid air against her shoulders and neck. That’s what she got for daydreaming about Hindu festivals in Christian America. She had to constantly be on the watch, or she’d find her body parts and the bus boy’s coming together in unwelcome interaction.

The cook rushed to her as she fell to the floor. The smarting was unbearable.

‘Good thing the water hadn’t come to a complete boil,’ he said, grazing his hand over the burn. ‘Brian, could you get me a band-aid?’

‘It’s a burn.’ Bhagwati winced. ‘I think I need a cream – something with aloe – more than I need a band-aid.’

‘I don’t know where the fucking first-aid kit is,’ Brian said with a snigger and swaggered outside, only to emerge a few seconds later with a box. ‘I don’t know how to open this damn thing. She only works here like us, and now we’re all becoming her damn slaves.’

By now, a substantial crowd of kitchen staff had gathered around the reclined Bhagwati and the gently comforting cook, and each offered his own diagnosis and prescription. Between a suggestion to rub toothpaste on the affected area and another to use a pack of ice arose an idea that a long, passionate kiss from the cook might help alleviate Bhagwati’s pain. A raucous applause signified approval from the bystanders.

The cook handed her a cream from the box. Bhagwati concentrated on squeezing the cream out of a small tube and applied it to her ankle. The burn didn’t seem as severe as the pain was.

‘It’s just a first-degree burn,’ someone said, before the manager commanded the crowd to disperse. ‘She’ll be fine.’

‘Damn, refugee,’ the cook said, ignoring her grimace. ‘Damn, you can only be happy you weren’t hurt by a pot of fully boiled water.’ ‘Thank you,’ Bhagwati said. ‘Could you please ask Brian not to bother me today?’

‘Don’t worry about him. You be careful around boiling pots. Be thankful I was here.The last time someone from your world burned himself, he applied some butter. Crazy man.’

Bhagwati still had a stack of dirty dishes to negotiate, but the story about this other person from her world intrigued her. She wanted to ask the cook, whom she was still hesitant to call by name because of its numerous silent letters, if the man had been treated as badly as she was. The manager – suited, limp-wristed but otherwise a kind man – was already looking at her with impatience, so she dashed off to tackle the plates, which, in between the accident and its treatment, had trebled in number.

Days like today took her on an endless question-and-answer session about whether life had actually changed for the better since leaving the refugee camps of Nepal. When she and other Nepali-speaking Bhutanese were herded out of Bhutan because they weren’t Bhutanese enough to be Bhutanese, they wouldn’t let go of the hope that Nepal would take them in, but their ancestors had been gone from Nepal and been in Bhutan too long for them to be Nepalese.

Life in the refugee camps of Nepal was supposed to be better than living in fear of persecution in Bhutan, but it wasn’t. Day in and day out, she and the other refugees struggled as non-contributing members of society, loathed by the Nepalese outside the camps – the Nepalese from Nepal; the real Nepalese – because the saranathis’ desperation had attracted enough Western attention for countries like America to come to their rescue. The campers had survived years clinging to a thin line of hope that some day America, Australia . . . any country where life was better than in the camps would whisk them away. When America finally did, life didn’t get any better.

‘All that beauty wasted on a Damaai,’ her grandmother had said about her in more than one phone conversation, adding a colourful word or two to describe her husband’s low caste. But she was used to her grandmother’s barbs – they didn’t hurt her the way people’s behaviour toward her at work did. In the kitchen of Tom’s Diner in Boulder, Colorado, she was often invisible, which was preferable to being the recipient of uninvited caresses.The first female dishwasher, the waiters and cooks had cheered the minute she walked in. All this she bore for the low-caste Damaai husband of hers – a nameless, identity-less, stateless Damaai.

Refugees didn’t belong anywhere, but she especially belonged nowhere. Who was she? Born: a Nepali-speaking Indian with a dead father from Sikkim, a dead mother from Nepal and a live grandmother from Kalimpong who was married into Sikkim. Postmarriage: a Nepali-speaking Bhutanese who lawfully relinquished her Indian citizenship so she could belong. Post the ousting of 106,000 Nepali-speaking people from Bhutan: an inhabitant of a state of statelessness in the refugee camps of Nepal. Post America’s magnanimity: a refugee now in America with a shiny green card that would probably never land her a job commensurate with her expectations.

She could have gone back to Sikkim and exploited her grandmother’s connections to re-establish her Indian identity, but her husband was too proud to give in. In the beginning, he, like thousands of others, languished in disbelief that his country could actually turn him away, but Ram had done enough harm to the monarchy with his column in an underground Nepali newspaper.

Incredulity gave way to expectation, which was gradually usurped by hopeless resignation. After living that way for a decade and a half, Bhagwati had stopped questioning the purpose of life.

At least in Boulder she was making a wage and trying her best to become a functional part of society. Despite efforts ranging from picking up Dzongkha, that Bhutanese language so different from Nepali, to cultivating reverence for the king, Bhutan never felt like home, and these days even Gangtok seemed alien, as though it had decided to grow up and old without her. The shiny new city with the pedestrianized square, like Pearl Street here, wasn’t what she left behind. Now, when she saw pictures of her hometown on Facebook, she felt no familiar stirrings. It was like staring at a photo of her long-dead parents.

Brian placed a new stack of plates for her. The dishes had been piling up, and she was woefully behind. She’d have no time to drink her coffee, and she willed the bitter pangs of remorse stemming from the looks the manager flung at her to go away. She wasn’t about to peg the accident to her negligence, to her drifting mind – not today at least.

‘Hey, refugee, what’s going on?’ the line cook yelled. ‘Why are the dishes so slow?’

Bhagwati didn’t answer but hurried along to scour off a plate some breadcrumbs that an excess of maple syrup had rendered immobile. The old Christian bus boy, who usually scraped the plates before he brought them to Bhagwati while extolling the virtues of Christ, manned the counter today. She’d have to deal with Brian’s handiwork, and that entailed getting rid of every uneaten morsel of food off the dishes.

‘Plates not coming fast enough,’ someone shouted. ‘No food if no plates. Where do we put what we fucking cook?’

Bhagwati loaded some dishes into the washer, wishing someone would turn down the heat.

‘Damn, refugee, are we okay?’ Brian said. ‘We are running outta plates.’

She paid him no attention. Brian would probably do what he did three days before – tell the manager that she had been painting her nails.To corroborate his story he had obtained a bottle of nail-polish that he claimed to have heroically confiscated from her.

But he didn’t.

‘Damn, at this rate, you’ll be fired,’ he hooted.

A grain of rice clung stubbornly to a plate. Had Brian been doing his work instead of breathing down her neck, her workload would have been reduced by half.

‘Damn, girl, the rice don’t want to leave you.’

She stayed silent. And then, as he turned to leave, his hand touched her back, as if by accident. But Bhagwati knew better. She slapped him.

‘You,’ she shrieked. ‘Stop touching me with your filthy hand.’ Brian winced and yelped. A waiter, the line cook and the Christian bus boy came by to inspect the scene. Just the day before, Brian had gone past her deliberately brushing his arm against her behind. She had said nothing then. Last week, it was something else. She looked around, hoping at least the Christian bus boy would cheer her on, as he, too, had on numerous occasions complained about Brian’s disrespectful ways. But the old man’s face reflected disbelief, and his revulsion – like everyone else’s – was not directed at Brian.

‘Bitch.’ Brian walked away. ‘What’s this country come to, taking immigrants like you? You can’t take jokes, man. You don’t understand the language; you don’t do jokes.’

The next batch of plates arrived surprisingly well scraped, and complaints about the dishes not coming out soon enough abruptly stopped.

If this was how things worked around here, maybe she should continue behaving the way she just did. She wondered about how difficult life was for a barely educated refugee in this country. She had at least received an excellent English-medium education in Gangtok. Her husband had gone to a government school in Bhutan and was nervous about his English, so she forgave him for not being able to hold down a job for more than a few days. Often, she, who was confident in her language abilities, didn’t understand the way Americans spoke – did they really have to twist and turn their tongues all the time? Hardly had she celebrated the victory of having understood something when off they’d go, curling their tongues, making incomprehensible whatever little she had gathered until then. Fifteen years at the camp had rusted her brain.

‘These seem to be the last plates of the day,’ the cook said. ‘The boss wants to see you in his office after this.’

She looked up in surprise at the calm tone and found the absence of epithet strangely jarring. That’s what her life had become: she thought something was amiss when she wasn’t summoned as a refugee.

The manager treated her well, but his consideration toward her was always obscured by the others’ hostility. Perhaps he had called her in to apologize for Brian’s behaviour. Maybe he’d even get rid of the boksha.

‘There’s been a problem,’ the manager began, maintaining negligible eye contact.

She said nothing.

‘There were reports that you were violent with him, B. We’ve a zero tolerance policy toward violence. Here’s a message for you: do not come back. You can return your shirt when you pick up your last paycheck.’

If she were to look at the positive side of things, at least she didn’t have to disclose her profession to everyone she would meet at her grandmother’s Chaurasi. She wouldn’t be lying when she declared to relatives that she didn’t work.

The apartment complex where Bhagwati, Ram and their sons lived at Thunderbird Circle housed enough Nepali-speaking people to shatter the myth about Boulder’s monochromatic personality. The most resented of the various groups were people like Ram and her: the Bhutanese refugees who had decided to uproot themselves from Denver, where they were originally settled by America, to Boulder for better opportunities. A close second were the Diversity Lottery winners from Nepal. Then came the professionals – diligent graduates of American universities, working harder still to climb the immigrant ladder one visa status at a time – who maintained a safe distance from the first two categories, guided in no small part by a mixture of scorn and envy. A handful of South Asian students with the resources to afford the state university’s private school-like fees or the brains to lend themselves to the school’s teaching-assistant workforce comprised the remaining residents. Rumour had it that the two couples sharing the one-bedroom in 208 were illegal.

Bhagwati waved at the allegedly illegal wives sunning themselves in the courtyard and bolted for the mailbox before they could approach her with a question about her sons’ braces, which were paid for by some NGO. Today was the last day she needed to be reminded how lucky her family was for having so many things done for them by America. In the last few weeks, the tone of the letters from Chase and Citi had grown especially aggressive, so Bhagwati decided against opening her mail.

In 213, sprawled on the flowery bed-sheet that covered the carpet was a headphone-decked Ram repeating ‘Thank you for calling Doe-mino’s. How may I help you?’ over and over again. When he noticed her, he removed his headphones and smiled.

‘Got the Doe-mino’s job,’ he said in halting English and then, moving to the comfort of Nepali, added, ‘I am practising how to answer the phone.’

‘That’s nice.’ Bhagwati faked enthusiasm. ‘At least one of us will be working.’

‘You’re back early,’ Ram said. ‘Did you take a half-day?’

‘No, I quit,’ Bhagwati lied.

Ram was quiet.

‘It was getting too much. The man had begun touching me.’

‘What will you do when you get back from India?’

‘Look for a new job – something that requires more qualification than the kind of jobs illegals do.’

‘A hotel?’ Ram asked. ‘Front desk?’

‘Reservations perhaps. No standing up required. When do you start?’

‘This afternoon. “Thank you for calling Doe-mino’s. How may I help you?”’

‘That’s fine. Now change the “doe” to “da”. It’s not Doe-mino’s but Da-minos.’

‘Da-da-da,’ Ram repeated. ‘I’ll have to end practice soon. Aatish will make fun of me if he hears.’

‘You should tell Aatish you’re doing it all for him and Virochan. You didn’t have the good fortune to go to school in America the way they do.’

‘I’ll stop now. Will you join me to pray before I head to Doe-mino’s?’

How ironic it was that her husband, an untouchable, the lowest of the low castes, an upsetting by-product of the heinous system that her ancestors helped create and propagate, should be so full of piety. He knew the shlokas, memorized elliptical Sanskrit mantras, read the Gita and understood what festival was celebrated for what reason. He was combative when she, a Brahmin, dismissed Hinduism’s many superstitions, made her analyse and reanalyse these beliefs and furnished her with the scientific reasoning behind them, which she begrudgingly acknowledged. And yet, he could never become a priest. He’d never be allowed near the altar of most Hindus. He was a casualty of Hinduism who had chosen not to be a victim. An untouchable who had no shame about his low caste as much as he did of robbing his Baahun wife of hers on account of her marriage to him. A bigger Hindu, a better Hindu than she or anyone she knew. Ram Bahadur Damaai – whose kind the Christian missionaries had been targeting for centuries and whose family had stood firm in their devotion to Hinduism, naming their child after a Hindu god; Ram Bahadur Damaai – of the tailor caste, the father of her halfcaste children who would thankfully not be taunted in this country for carrying in their bloodline accusations of incest and consanguinity; Ram Bahadur Damaai – responsible for the biggest blemish anyone had brought on her family, for belonging to a family of tailors, of alterers and cutters, for altering family dynamics in a way that could never be unaltered, for ripping grandmother from granddaughter in a way they could never be re-hemmed; Ram Bahadur Damaai – who gave her two sons in whose DNA were Damaai blood and Brahmin blood, one infiltrating another, poisoning another, the two sons her grandmother would never touch, whose presence would desecrate her ancestral house; Ram Bahadur Damaai – the untouchable kicked out of Bhutan along with Brahmins, Chettris and Newars, the man for whom she had given it all up and never regretted it – was a better human being than any of her family members would ever be.

And as her husband stood in front of the makeshift altar – a part of their closet on whose surface sat a motley of colourful gods and goddesses – sonorously reciting the Gayatri Mantra, the Hanuman Chalisa and the Ganesha Mantra, chants coined by the very Brahmins who had determined his legacy and the identity of his sons and grandsons, Bhagwati Neupaney Damaai – with a bell oscillating in frenzy in one hand – prayed the hardest she had in her thirty-seven years. For a long period, she had put off thinking about the enormity of the impending reunion, but it was here now. She’d be seeing her grandmother after eighteen years – for the first time since the elopement – and she needed to fortify herself with all the prayers of all the religions in the world.


Excerpted from Land Where I Flee by Prajwal Parajuly. Copyright © 2014 by Prajwal Parajuly.
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.

Irene by Pierre Lemaitre – Extract

Irene

Monday, April 7, 2003

1

“Alice . . .” he said, looking at what anyone else would have called a young girl.

He used her name as a sign of complicity but could not make the slightest dent in her armour. He looked down at the notes scribbled by Armand during the first interview: Alice Vandenbosch, 24. He tried to imagine what 24-year-old Alice Vandenbosch normally looked like. She was probably a young woman with a long, slim face, sandy hair, honest eyes. What he saw when he looked up seemed completely improbable. The girl was nothing like herself: her hair, once blonde, was plastered to her skull and dark at the roots; her face had a sickly pallor, a large purple bruise on her right cheek, thin threads of dried blood at one corner of her mouth . . . all that was human in her wild, frantic eyes was fear, a fear so terrible she was still shivering as though she had gone out on a winter’s day without a coat. She clutched the plastic coffee cup with both hands, like a lifeline.

Usually, when Camille Verhœven stepped into a room, even the coolest of customers reacted. Not Alice. Alice was shut away inside herself, trembling.

It was 8.30 a.m.

A few minutes earlier, when he had arrived at the brigade criminelle, Camille had felt tired. Dinner the night before had gone on until 1 a.m. People he did not know, friends of Irène. They had talked about television, told stories that Camille might have found quite funny, but for the fact that he was sitting opposite a woman who reminded him of his mother. All through the meal he had tried to dispel the image, but it was uncanny: the same stare, the same mouth, the same cigarettes smoked one after the other. Camille had found himself swept back twenty years to a blessed time when his mother would emerge from her studio wearing a smock smeared with paint, a cigarette dangling from her lips, her hair dishevelled. A time when he would still go to watch her work. She was an Amazon. Solid and focused, with a furious brushstroke. She lived so much inside her head that sometimes she did not seem to notice his presence. Long, silent periods back when he had loved painting, back when he watched her every movement as though it might be the key to some mystery that concerned him personally. That was before. Before the serried ranks of cigarettes declared open war on her, but long after they caused the foetal hypotrophy that marked Camille’s birth. At the time, drawing himself up to his full height – he would never be taller than four foot eleven – Camille did not know which he hated more, the mother whose toxic habit had fashioned him into a kind of pale, slightly less deformed copy of Toulouse-Lautrec, or the meek, powerless father who gazed at his wife with pathetic admiration, as though at his own reflection in a mirror: at sixteen he was already a man, though not in stature. While his mother accumulated canvases in her studio and his laconic father worked at the pharmacy, Camille learned what it meant to be short. As he grew older, he stopped desperately trying to stand on tiptoe, got used to looking at others from below, gave up trying to reach shelves without fetching a stool, laid out his personal space like a doll’s house. And this diminutive man would survey, without really understanding, the vast canvases his mother had to roll up in order to take them to gallery owners. Sometimes his mother would say, “Camille, come here a minute . . .” Sitting on a stool, she would silently run her fingers through his hair and Camille knew that he loved her; at times he thought he would never love anyone else.

Those were the good times, Camille thought over dinner as he stared at the woman sitting opposite who laughed raucously, drank little and smoked like a chimney. The time before his mother spent her days kneeling next to her bed, resting her cheek on the blankets, the only position in which the cancer gave her a little respite. Illness had brought her to her knees. And though by now each found the other unfathomable, this was the first time that they could look at each other eye to eye. At the time, Camille had sketched a lot, spending long hours in his mother’s now deserted studio. When he decided to go into her room he would find his father, who now also spent half his life on his knees, pressed against his wife, his arm around her shoulders, saying nothing, breathing to the same rhythm as her. Camille was left alone. Camille sketched. Camille killed time and he waited.

By the time he went to law school, his mother weighed as little as one of her paintbrushes. Whenever he came home, his father seemed cloaked in a heavy silence of grief. The whole thing dragged on. And Camille bent his permanently childlike body over his law books and waited for it to end.

It arrived on a May day like any other. The telephone call might almost have been from a stranger. His father said simply, “You should probably come home.” And he knew straight away that from then on he would have to make his own way in the world, that there would never be anyone else.

At forty, this short, bald man with his long, furrowed face knew that this was not true, now that Irène had come into his life. But all these visions from the past had made for an exhausting evening. Besides, game had never really agreed with him.

It was at about the time he was bringing Irène her breakfast on a tray that Alice had been picked up by a squad car on the boulevard Bonne-Nouvelle.

“In ten minutes,” said Camille, “I want you to come and tell me you’ve found Marco. And that he’s in a bad way.”

“Found Marco . . .?” Armand was puzzled. “Where?”

“What the fuck do I know, just make it happen.”

With short, swift strides, Camille scuttered back to his office. “So,” he said as he came towards Alice, “Let’s take it again from the beginning.”

He stood facing her, they were almost eye to eye. Alice seemed to wake from her trance. She stared at him as though seeing him for the first time and must have felt more keenly than ever how ridiculous the world was; two hours earlier she had been beaten up, her body was a mass of bruises, now here she sat in the brigade criminelle staring at a man no more than four foot eleven tall who was suggesting they start again from the beginning, as though this nightmare had a beginning.

Camille sat at his desk and automatically picked a pencil from among the dozen or so in the cut-glass desk tidy Irène had given him. He looked at Alice. She was not an ugly girl, rather pretty, in fact. Her delicate, sorrowful features were somewhat gaunt from too many late nights and too little care. A pietà. She looked like a reproduction of a classical statue.

“How long have you been working for Santeny?” he asked, sketching the curve of her face with a single stroke.

“I don’t work for him!”

“O.K., let’s say two years then. So you work for him and he supplies you, is that the deal?”

“No.”

“And you still think he’s in love with you, am I right?”

She glared at him. Camille smiled and looked down at his drawing. There was a long silence. Camille remembered a favourite phrase of his mother’s: “It’s the artist’s heart that beats inside the model’s body.”

On the sketchpad, with a few deft strokes, a different Alice slowly began to appear, younger than the woman sitting opposite, just as sorrowful but not as bruised. Camille looked at her again and seemed to come to a decision. Alice watched as he pulled a chair up next to her and perched on it like a child, his feet dangling.

“Mind if I smoke?” Alice said.

“Santeny’s in deep, deep shit,” Camille said as though he hadn’t heard. “The world and his brother are gunning for him. But you know that better than anyone, don’t you?” he said, gesturing to her bruises. “Not exactly friendly, are they? So it’s probably best that we find him first, don’t you think?”

Alice seemed to be hypnotised by Camille’s shoes, which swung like a two pendulums several inches from the floor.

“He’s got no-one to turn to, no way out of this. I give him a couple of days at most. But then you haven’t got anyone either, have you? They’ll track you down . . . Now, where’s Santeny?”

A stubborn little pout, like a child who knows she’s doing something wrong but does it anyway.

‘O.K., never mind . . . you’re free to go,” said Camille, as though talking to himself. “Next time I see you, I hope it’s not at the bottom of a rubbish skip.”

At precisely that moment Armand stepped into the office.

“We’ve just found Marco. You were right, he’s in a terrible way.”

Camille looked at Armand in feigned surprise.

“Where was he?”

“His place.

Camille shot his colleague a pitiful look: even with his imagination Armand was tight-fisted.

“O.K. Anyway, we can let the girl go,” he said, hopping down from the chair.

A little flurry of panic, then:

“He’s in Rambouiller,” muttered Alice under her breath.

“Oh,” said Camille, unimpressed.

“Boulevard Delagrange, number 18.”

“Eighteen,” Camille echoed, as though repeating the number excused him from having to thank the young woman.

Without waiting for permission, Alice took a crumpled cigarette pack from her pocket and lit one.

“Those things will kill you,” Camille said.

Camille was gesturing to Armand to dispatch a squad to the address when the telephone rang. On the other end, Louis sounded out of breath.

“We’ve got a clusterfuck out in Courbevoie,” he panted.

“Do tell . . .” Camille said laconically, picking up a pen.

“We received an anonymous tip-off this morning. I’m there right now. It’s . . . I don’t know how to describe it—”

“Why don’t you give it a go,” Camille interrupted fractiously, “see what we come up with.”

“It’s carnage,” Louis said in a strangulated voice, struggling to find the words. “It’s a bloodbath. But not the usual kind, if you see what I mean . . .”

“I don’t see, Louis, not really.”

“It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen in my life . . .”

Since his extension was engaged, Camille walked to Commissaire Le Guen’s office. He knocked curtly but did not wait for an answer. He liked to make an entrance.

Le Guen was a big man who had spent more than twenty years following one diet after another without losing a single gram. He had acquired a somewhat weary fatalism which was visible in his face, in his whole body. Camille had noticed that, over the years, he had adopted the air of a deposed king, surveying the world with a sullen, disillusioned expression. Hardly had Camille said a word than Le Guen interrupted him purely on principle, explaining that, whatever it was, “he didn’t have the time”. But when he saw the slim dossier Camille had brought, he decided accompany him to the crime scene nonetheless.

On the telephone Louis had said, “It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen in my life . . .” This worried Camille; his assistant was not given to doom-mongering. In fact he was exasperatingly optimistic, so Camille expected nothing good of this unexpected call-out. As the Péripherique flashed past, Camille Verhœven could not help but smile thinking about Louis.

Louis was blond, his hair parted to the side, and he had that unruly tuft genetically bestowed upon children of the privileged classes, a wayward curl constantly flicked back with a jerk of the head or a nonchalant yet practised hand. Over time, Camille had learned to distinguish the different messages conveyed by the way he pushed back his hair, a veritable barometer for gauging Louis’ moods. The right-handed variant covered a range of meanings running from “Let’s be reasonable” to “That’s simply not done”. The left-handed variant signalled embarrassment, awkwardness, timidity or confusion. Looking at Louis, it was easy to imagine him as an altar boy. He still had the youthful looks, the grace, the fragility. In short, Louis was elegant, slim, delicate, and a royal pain in the arse.

To crown it all, Louis was loaded. He had all the trappings of the filthy rich: a certain way of deporting himself, a particular way of speaking, of articulating, of choosing his words, everything in fact that comes from the top-shelf mould marked “Rich spoiled brat”. Louis had initially excelled at university (where he had studied a little law, some economics, history of art, aesthetics, psychology), changing courses according to his whims, unfailingly brilliant, treating education as a series of inane achievements. And then something had happened. From what Camille understood, it had to do with Descartes’ dark night of the soul and the demon drink – a combination of philosophical intuition and single malt whisky. Louis had seen his life stretching out before him, in his perfectly appointed six-room apartment lined with bookshelves full of tomes on art and inlaid cabinets filled with designer crockery, the rents from his various properties rolling in like a civil servant’s salary, spending holidays at his mother’s place in Vichy, frequenting the same neighbourhood restaurants, and he found himself confronted by a personal paradox as sudden as it was strange, a genuine existential crisis which anyone other than Louis would have summed up by saying “What the fuck am I doing here?”

Camille was convinced that, had he been born thirty years earlier, Louis would have become a left-wing revolutionary, but these days ideology no longer offered an alternative. Louis despised sanctimoniousness, and by extension voluntary work and charity. He needed to find something to do with his life, his own living hell. And suddenly it became clear to him: he would join the police. Louis never doubted for a moment that he would be accepted into the brigade criminelle – doubt was not a family trait, and Louis’ brilliance meant that he was rarely disillusioned. He passed his police exams and joined the force, motivated partly by a desire to serve (not to Protect and Serve, but simply to serve a purpose), partly by the fear that life would soon become entirely solipsistic and partly, perhaps, out of an imagined debt he felt he owed the working classes for not having been born one of their number. When he passed his detective’s exams, Louis found the world utterly different from how he had imagined it: it had nothing of the quaintness of Agatha Christie or the deductive logic of Conan Doyle; instead Louis found himself faced with filthy hovels and battered wives, drug dealers bleeding to death in rubbish skips in Barbès, knife fights between junkies, putrid toilets where the addicts who survived the fights O.D.’d, rent-boys selling their arses for a line of coke and johns who refused to pay more than €5 for a blowjob after 2 a.m. In the early days, Camille found it entertaining to observe Louis, the blond fringe, the florid vocabulary, his eyes filled with horror but his mind like a steel trap, as he filled out endless reports; Louis imperturbably taking witness statements in echoing, piss-stained stairwells next to the corpse of some thirteen-year-old pimp who had been hacked to death with a machete in front of his mother; Louis heading home at two in the morning to his enormous apartment on the rue Notre-Dame-de-Lorette and collapsing fully dressed on his velvet sofa beneath an engraving by Pavel, between the bookcase of signed first editions and his late father’s collection of amethysts.

When Louis first arrived at the brigade criminelle, the commandant did not immediately take to this smooth, clean- cut young man with the upper-class drawl who seemed unfazed by everything. The other officers on the team, who found it mildly entertaining to spend their days with a golden boy, were ruthless. Within less than two months, Louis had encountered most of the cruel pranks and hazing rituals with which groups humiliate outsiders. Louis accepted his fate without complaint, smiling awkwardly.

Camille noticed earlier than his colleagues that this surprising and intelligent young man had the makings of a good officer but, perhaps trusting to Darwinian selection, he decided not to intervene. Louis, with his rather British stiff upper lip, was grateful to him for that. One evening, as he was leaving the offices, Camille saw Louis dash to the bar across the road and knock back two or three shots. It reminded him of the fight scene in “Cool Hand Luke” where Paul Newman, battered, dazed and unable to land a punch, keeps getting up every time he’s knocked down until the men watching lose heart, even his opponent loses the will to fight. And indeed, faced with Louis’ professional diligence and his surprising ability to appeal to their better nature, the other officers eventually gave up. Over the years, Camille and Louis accepted each other’s differences, and since the commandant enjoyed an undisputed moral authority over the team, no-one was surprised that the rich kid gradually became his closest colleague. Camille always addressed Louis by his first name, as he did everyone on his team. But as time passed and the team changed, he realised that only the longest-serving members called him Camille. These days the team was mostly comprised of rookies, and Camille sometimes felt as though he had usurped a role he had never sought and become patriarch. The rookies addressed him as “commandant”, though he knew this was less to do with hierarchy than an attempt to compensate for the instinctive embarrassment they felt at his diminutive stature. Louis also addressed him by his surname, but Camille knew that his motivation was different: it was a reflex of his class. The two men had never quite become friends, but they respected one another, and both felt that this was a better basis for a good working relationship.


Excerpted from Irene by Pierre Lemaitre. Copyright © 2014 by Pierre Lemaitre.
First published in the French language as Travail soigné by Jean-Claude Lattès in 2006.
First published in Great Britain in 2014 by MacLehose Press, an imprint of Quercus, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Empress of the Sun by Ian McDonald – Extract

Empress of the Sun

1

A dot of brilliant light. In an instant the dot exploded into a disc. The disc of light turned to a circle of blackness: a night sky. Out of the perfect circle of night sky came the airship, slow, huge, magnificent. Impeller engines hummed. The Heisenberg Gate flickered and closed behind it.

‘Voom,’ Everett Singh whispered, blinking in the daylight of a new Earth. He lifted his finger from the Infundibulum’s touchscreen. Another Heisenberg Jump, another universe.

The bridge of the airship Everness shrieked with alarms. Yellow lights flashed. Horns blared. Balls rang, klaxons shrieked. Impact warning, impact warning, thundered a mechanical voice. Everett’s vision cleared at the same instant as that of the rest of the crew. He saw . . .

‘Atlanta, Dundee and sweet Saint Pio,’ whispered Miles O’Rahilly Lafayette Sharkey, the airship’s weighmaster. The Bible, particularly the Old Testament, was his usual source of quotes. He had a verse for every occasion. When he called on the saints of his old Confederation home, it was serious.

. . . trees. Trees before them. Trees beneath them. Trees in their faces. Trees reaching their deadly, killing branches towards them. Trees everywhere. And Everness powering nose down into them.

‘This is . . . This shouldn’t be happening,’ Everett said, paralysed with shock at his station on the bridge. ‘The jump . . . I calculated . . .’

‘Sen!’ Captain Anastasia Sixsmyth bellowed. One moment she had been at the great window, striking her customary pose, in her riding breeches and boots, her blouse with the collar turned up, her hands clasped behind her back, above her the soft velvet stars of Earth 1. The next, staring airshipwreck full in the face. ‘Take us up!’

‘I’s on it,’ her adopted daughter shouted. Sen Sixsmyth was as slight as a whippet, pale as a blizzard, but she was pilot of the airship Everness and she threw every gram of her small weight on the thrust levers. Everett felt Everness shudder as the impeller pods swivelled into vertical lift. But airships are big and long and lumbering and it takes time, a lot of time, too much time, to make them change their courses. ‘Come on, my dilly dorcas . . . come on, my lover . . .’

Impact warning, impact warning, the alarm shouted. It had a Hackney Airish accent.

‘Belay that racket!’ Captain Anastasia thundered. Sharkey killed the alarms, but the warning lights still filled the bridge with flashing yellow madness.

We’re not going to make it, Everett thought. We’re not going to make it. Strange how he felt so calm about it. When it’s inevitable, you stop fighting and accept it.

‘Ma’am . . . Ma . . . I can’t get her head up,’ Sen shouted. Captain Anastasia turned to Everett Singh. The great window was green, red. A universe of red-green.

‘Mr Singh, Heisenberg Jump.’

Everett tore his eyes from the hypnotic, killing green outside the window to the jump-control display on Dr Quantum, his iPad. The figures made no sense. No sense. He was frozen. IQ the size of a planet, as his dad had once said, and he didn’t know what to do. Scared and unable to do anything about it.

‘I . . . I . . . need to calculate—’

‘No time, Mr Singh.’

‘A random jump could take us anywhere!’

‘Get us out of here!’

Sharkey glanced up at the monitors.

‘Captain, we’re grounding.’

The bridge shook as if shaken by the hand of a god. Everett clung to the jump-station. Captain Anastasia reeled hard into a bulkhead. She went down, winded. Sen clung to the steering yoke like a drowning rat to driftwood. Everness screamed, her nanocarbon skeleton twisted to its limits.

Shipskin tore with ripping shrieks. Everett heard spars snap one by one, like bones. Tree branches shattered in small explosions. The hull shuddered to a crashing boom.

‘We’ve lost an engine,’ Sharkey shouted, hanging on to his monitor screens. He sounded as if he had lost his own arm.

Everness drove into the thousand branches of the forest canopy. Green loomed in the great window. The glass exploded. Branches speared into the bridge. Captain Anastasia rolled away as a splintered shaft of wood stabbed towards her. Sen ducked under a branch ramming straight for her head. The bridge was filled with twigs and leaves.

‘I’m giving her reverse thrust!’ Sen yelled. Everett grabbed hold of the wooden rail of his jump-station as Everness shuddered right down to her spine. There was an enormous wrenching, grating groan. The impaling branches shifted a metre, no more. The vibration shook Everett to the fillings in his teeth.

‘I can’t move her!’ Sen shouted.

‘Leave her – you’ll burn out the impellers!’ Captain Anastasia cried.

‘If we have any left,’ Sharkey said.

Captain Anastasia relieved her daughter at the helm. ‘Mr Singh, take us back to Earth 1. On my word. Everyone else, stand by. This will either cure or kill.’

‘No!’ Sen yelled as she saw her mother’s hand raised above the flush-ballast button.

‘Come on, you high and shining ones,’ Captain Anastasia whispered. ‘Just once.’ She brought her hand down hard on the red button. Everness lurched as hundreds of tons of ballast water jetted from scupper valves. The airship strained. Her skeleton groaned like a living thing. Tree branches bent and snapped. A jolt upwards. Everett could hear the water thundering from the valves. It must look like a dozen waterfalls. Everness gave a massive creak and lurched upwards again. The branches tore free from the bridge in a shower of leaves. The airship was lifting. There was a crunching shriek of metal strained beyond its limits. Everness rolled to one side, then righted. All the power went dead. Screens, monitors, controls, lights, navigation, helm, communications. Dr Quantum flickered and went dark.

Captain Anastasia took her hand off the flush button. The water jets closed. The silence was total and eerie.

‘“And, behold, there came a great wind from the wilderness, and smote the four corners of the house . . . and I only am escaped alone to tell thee,”’ Sharkey quoted.

‘I’d prefer a report on our status, Mr Sharkey,’ Captain Anastasia said.

‘Status?’ a voice bellowed from the spiral staircase outside. ‘I’ll give you our status!’ Mchynlyth, ship’s engineer, burst on to the bridge. His brown face was flushed with emotion. ‘We’re buggered. You know those big munchety-crunchety noises? Well, those were our engines coming off. That’s why we’ve nae power. Circuit-breakers cut in. And I near got half a tree up my jaxy. I’m sitting there down there looking down at dead air in six different places. Our status, Captain? How about buggered, bolloxed and utterly banjaxed?’

Everness creaked, dropped two metres and came to a final rest. Brilliant rainbow birds clattered up from roosts. They weren’t birds, Everett realised. Those bright colours weren’t feathers.

‘Where are we?’ he said.

Captain Anastasia whirled. Her black face was dark with anger. Her eyes shone hard. She flared her nostrils, chewed her lip. Waiting for the anger to subside enough to be able to speak civilly.

‘I thought you knew, Mr Singh. I thought you knew everything.’

Everett’s face burned with shame. He felt tight, choked, sick in his stomach. Burning behind his eyes, in his head, in his ears. Shame, but anger too. This was not fair. It hadn’t been his fault. He had calculated perfectly. Perfectly. He didn’t make mistakes like that. He didn’t make mistakes. There was something wrong with this world. That was the only explanation. He wanted to shout back at her that he didn’t make mistakes, that she was as much to blame. He shook with anger. The words burned hot and hard in him. Captain Anastasia turned away to the rest of her crew.

‘Let’s get her lashed down and back to airship-shape and Hackney-fashion.’

2

The crew harnessed up in the cargo hold. Captain Anastasia tugged Everett’s harness, checked the fastenings and buckles. Everett couldn’t meet her eye. The damage was all around them. The skin had been pierced in half a dozen places, splintered branches like wooden spears. There was an entire crown of a tree in Mchynlyth’s engineering bay, a giant Christmas tree rammed up through the hull. Except the leaves were red, and smelled of something spicy, rich, that Everett knew but could not place. He could see ground through the hole. It was a very long way down. Everness’s nanocarbon skeleton was mighty, but even it could not take such an impact unharmed. Struts had shattered, spars cracked and flaked layers of nanocarbon; an entire cross-member had sheared through and creaked ominously above Everett’s head. The spine was intact. If the ship had broken her back, there would have been no option but to abandon her.

Everness had lost three of her six impellers in the impact. Engine struts had snapped, command lines and power cables ripped like severed nerves. Number-two impeller had torn free, pylon and all, leaving a hideous wound in the ship’s skin. Everness’s mad descent through the treetops had strewn the engine pods across several kilometres of deep, alien forest. Captain Anastasia was mounting a search-andrecovery mission to the forest floor, three hundred metres below. The trees were taller, and his feet felt less firmly glued to this world than on any Earth Everett had visited. Weaker gravity? How did that work? And then there was the sun. It wasn’t moving right . . .

‘Sen!’ Captain Anastasia bellowed.

Sen’s voice came from above. ‘Just getting some togs on.’ She rode the drop-line down from the spine walkway to the hold floor. That’s an entrance, Everett thought. Everness had jumped from Earth 1 Oxford winter to tropical warmth and humidity and everyone had dressed appropriately: Mchynlyth had peeled off the top of his orange coveralls and tied the arms round his waist. His singlet showed impressive abs and a lot of pink scars on his brown skin. Sharkey had ditched his coat for a sleeveless white shirt. He wore the twin shotguns in holsters across his back. Captain Anastasia was lean and muscular in capri tights and a tank top. Everett remained smothered in winter layers. They covered up his guilt. He had no right to show his body, expose his skin to the sun.

Sen’s warm-weather togs were as little as she could get away with. Grippy-sole ship boots, rugby socks, work gloves, gold short-shorts, a boob tube and a headband to keep her wild white afro under control.

‘Go and put some clothes on!’ Captain Anastasia bellowed. Sen sashayed past her adoptive mother with a defiant flick of her head. Mchynlyth was chewing his face from the inside out, trying to keep the laughter in. As Sen strapped into her harness she flashed the briefest smile at Everett. It was sun on his face. It said, I’s all right, you’s all right, omi, friends forever.

‘So, we get these engines or what?’ Then Sen stepped off the edge of the loading bay, hit the lift control on her wrist and vanished with a whoop into the deep red foliage below. ‘Sen, we don’t know . . .’ Captain Anastasia roared. ‘Bloody girl.’ She leaped after her daughter. Mchynlyth, then Sharkey, followed, winch reels screaming. Everett watched them drop down through the branches until he could no longer see them through the foliage. It would be all right. That was what Sen’s little private smile to him had said. Everett stepped off the platform and felt the sudden tug as the winches took the strain.

Red leaves and a chaos of branches beneath him. Above him, the hulk of Everness. Everett let out a small cry of pain and shame. When he was a kid he had seen an old film of a whale, hunted, killed, dragged on to a factory ship and peeled of its blubber. He had cried himself to sleep and cried himself awake again. His mum had talked him through it, told him it was an old, old film; no one did that kind of thing any more. The great whales were safe. Everness was like that whale: a beautiful thing hauled out of its natural element, speared and harpooned and spiked, tied down, its skin ripped open. Hunted, helpless. Hideously wounded.

Everett knocked painfully into a branch. Look where you’re going. He hadn’t, that was the problem. Every Heisenberg Jump was calculated guesswork. He made assumptions. But for some reason there was a forest where there shouldn’t have been. How? Why? He’d plotted a straight point-to-point jump, from one set of coordinates on Earth 1 to a set on the world where the Panopticon had recorded a jumpgun trace. Simple spherical geometry. Simple for him. The only way it could be different. Was. If. The . . . geometry of the world was different.

‘No,’ Everett whispered. Then, through the leaves beneath his feet, he spotted the crew clustered around a massive, strange cylindrical object wedged in a fork of a tree. Torn branches, splintered limbs: it took Everett a moment to identify what he was seeing – one of Everness’s impeller pods, come to rest a hundred metres above the ground.

Leaves brushed his face, and now he knew the musky, rich perfume. Hash. Resin. The forest smelled like the mother of all sixteen-year-olds’ parties.

‘Tharbyloo!’ came the voice from up among the branches. Moments later the forest rang to a splintering crack and a branch pierced the dapple of deep red foliage, aimed straight at Sharkey’s chest. At the last second he stepped to one side. The branch drove deep into the soft, fragrant forest leaf mould. Sharkey nonchalantly adjusted the trim of his hat.

Power tools shrieked, chainsaws screamed up in the canopy. Sawdust and woodchips fell on the anxious crew.

‘I got her!’

Once the ground base was set up, Sen had been sent up on a line with chainsaws, nanofilament cutting lines, prybars and lube-gun to free number-three impeller. Everett had questioned the wisdom but Mchynlyth had quickly put him in his place. Sen was small, agile and could get into tight places no adult could.

He wished she was down on the ground. The forest floor was sweltering and steamy but the atmosphere was frigid. Sharkey would not speak to him. Mchynlyth had let him know that it would be a long time – a very long time – before he forgave Everett for what he had done. Captain Anastasia gave off such an air of personal hurt that Everett could not bear even to look at her.

‘Lowering!’ Sen shouted, a voice among the leaves.

Mchynlyth hit a button on his wrist control. The groaning creak was so loud Everett feared the whole tree was coming down on top of him, all three hundred metres of it. Then the rounded belly of the impeller pod pushed the leaves and smaller branches apart. Down it came, in a web of lines. Sen rode it like a bronco.

‘Mah baby, mah poor baby!’ Mchynlyth embraced the engine like a friend. ‘What have they done to ye?’ Clever tools opened panels. Mchynlyth and Captain Anastasia were bent over the hatch. Everett ached with guilt.

‘Is there something I can do . . . ?’

Mchynlyth and Captain Anastasia turned at the same time. The looks on their faces froze him solid. He died, there, then, in a clearing in an alien rainforest in a world that didn’t make sense in a parallel universe. Died in his heart. He stepped back.

He had never been hated before. It was an emotion as strong and pure as love, and as rare. It was the opposite of everything love felt, except the passion. He wanted to die. ‘By your leave, ma’am, I’ve never had a skill for fixin’,’ Sharkey shouted. ‘“Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith,” as the word of the Dear teaches, but sometimes a man hunkers for a chunk of stalled ox. I’m going to see what our neighbourhood offers the aggressive carnivore.’

‘I’ll . . .’ Everett began, but Sharkey whirled away, whipped the shotguns from his holsters and stalked out of the clearing into the hooting, whistling, chirruping, singing forest shadows.

‘Sen . . .’

She had tied her hair back and pulled her goggles down. She was steampunk funk queen and Everett’s heart broke looking at her at work in the hatch, skinny as a whippet, sweaty, grease-smudged, totally absorbed in repairing her ship, her home. Her family.

He had never felt so alone, not even when he had hijacked Paul McCabe’s Heisenberg Gate and sent himself to Earth 3. There he was an adventurer. Here he was a survivor. There he had a plan. Here all his plans were impaled upon tree branches. And everyone hated him.

Everett tried to think of the people who loved him, his friends, his family. He froze when he realised he couldn’t see his mum’s face any more. He could see her hands, her clothes, her shoes, but not her face. He couldn’t see VictoryRose either, or Bebe Ajeet, or his many Punjabi aunts and uncles; he could hardly remember friends like Ryun and Colette. All that remained of her were her Doc Marten boots and hair –both shocking pink. He had only been away from them for a few weeks, but so many worlds and people and so much fear and excitement and strangeness had come between Everett and the people he loved that it was a screen like frosted glass, that showed shapes and outlines but hid details. The only face he could see was his dad’s, in that moment on the twenty-second floor of the Tyrone Tower when Charlotte Villiers turned the jumpgun on him. He saw that too clearly. It was as if the sharpness and brightness of that final glance washed out all the other faces.

He had never felt more alone.

He couldn’t stop tears. They were the simple and most natural and right thing to come, but he would die rather than let the people working on the engine see them. He turned and ran into the jungle.

The river stopped Everett. The trees ended abruptly and the bank gave way so suddenly and steeply he went skidding down between boulders and exposed tree roots. He had let his body carry him without any conscious thought. Just running. Just hurdling branches and huge tree roots. He could have run on and on until he couldn’t find his way back. Here, at the river’s edge, he could faintly hear the sound of Airish power tools and lifting tackle. There was a way back. There was always a way back.

Trees taller and grander than any on Earth soared above Everett. He could see the sky. A small fall of water between two boulders had hollowed out a pool. The water was deep and clear, cool and calling. Sun and water touched the hurt and guilt and loneliness. In a moment he was kicking off boots, wriggling out of ship togs. He splashed into the pool, lolled back. Cool deep water rose up over his chest. Everett took his feet off the bottom, kept himself upright with tiny movements of his hands and feet.

The water blessed him. He was alone, but not lonely. He had never been skinny-dipping before. He loved the sensual feel of wild water touching every part of his body. I have swum like this before, he realised, before I was born, naked, in the waters inside my mum.

It was a bit of a freaky thought.

Everett paddled round to where a ray of sunlight shone through a gap in the canopy of red leaves. Sun fell on his face. He closed his eyes. Opened them with a shock.

The sun.

There was something wrong with the sun. It was still full in his face. It shouldn’t be. It should have moved across the sky. It hadn’t. It was lower, closer to the lower edge of the gap in the branches, but still full in his face. The sun didn’t move on an arc from east to west. It was moving straight up and down.

His calculations. He had calculated for a jump from a spherical planet to another spherical planet. The geometry of the world . . .

‘No way!’ Everett shouted, surging straight up out of the water. Winged things burst upwards in panic from the trees. ‘No! This is insane.’ But the numbers were running in his head, connecting with other numbers, with theories and physical laws, painting a picture of the world that fitted – that was the only explanation – with the facts at hand.

He had to get back to the crew. They would listen to him when he told them what he had worked out about this world. They had to listen to him. He waded to the riverbank.

His clothes. Where were his clothes? He’d left them on this rock, neatly folded, weighted down with his boots in case the wind got up.

Everett heard a noise. There, behind that root buttress. A rustle. A movement. A . . . giggle? Everett cupped his hands over his groin. Water streamed from him.

‘Sen?’

It was a giggle.

‘Sen! Have you got my togs?’

No answer. No movement.

‘Don’t mess around! There’s something important you need to know. Mega.’

‘Come and get them!’

‘Sen!’

She could wait all day for him to come out of the water. ‘Okay then, since you think it’s so funny . . .’ Everett waded out of the river. He let go his covering hands. He heard a whoop from behind the tree root. Everett imagined himself from Sen’s point of view. He looked okay. Better than okay; he looked pretty good.

‘Remember I dressed you at Bona Togs?’ Sen shouted. ‘Well, I’s going to dress you again.’ A hand draped two socks over the sloping root. ‘Come and get ’em!’

‘I will,’ said Everett Singh. He heard a squealing shriek of delight and laughter, then a flurry of moving foliage. He pulled on the socks: heavy knit, thick rib top, like the ones Sen wore. He felt dumb in just socks.

‘Come on!’ Sen shouted from behind a brake of silvery cane. She waved his boots at him, one on each hand.

‘Sen, this is important. This world – it’s . . .’

‘That scar’s really healing up good,’ Sen called from deeper in the forest.

Everett had almost forgotten about the scar his alter’s laser had scorched across his side at the Battle of Abney Park Cemetery. Sen’s careless comment knocked him back into the pain and humiliation. He had been badly beaten. He would wear the mark of his enemy for the rest of his life. Everett had unfinished business with alter-Everett.

Now Sen hung his ship shorts from a low branch.

‘Sen! Don’t mess around!’ Everett shouted as he struggled to get feet through legs.

‘You wear too many clothes!’ Sen called from a new hiding place. ‘It’s bad for you.’ She draped his T-shirt over a spiny shrub. She had cut the sleeves off and shortened it. It was not quite her crop-top level, but shorter than any straight E10 omi would be seen in. Bare-chested, Everett strode to retrieve it.

Something splintered softly under his left boot, and his ankle went deep into something soft and wet and sticky. A waft of rot and sickness wafted up. Everett looked down. His heart jolted, he almost puked in shock. His left foot was embedded in the ribs of a mouldering human corpse.

Empty eye sockets stared up at him from a skull clothed with rags of skin. Vile liquids and rotting organs leaked from the blackened, burst skin. Everett tried to extricate his foot. Decaying things glooped and sucked.

‘Sen!’ he yelled. ‘Sen!’

‘Uh-uh, Everett Singh, you come and get it.’

‘Sen!’ His voice said, No jokes any more.

She came running, hurdling lightly over roots and fallen branches.

‘Everett, what is it? Oh the Dear.’

Everett had followed the trace truly and accurately. Someone had been banished to this world by the jumpgun.

Sen held two hands out to Everett.

‘I’s got you, omi. Walk towards me. Come on, Everett Singh.’

He took her hands and pulled his foot out of the dead thing. He could feel gross corpse stuff on his skin. He would never be able to get it clean again. But that was not the true horror. The horrible, terrible, all-devouring fear was who that corpse might be.

‘Sen, can you look at it? Is it?’

Sen understood at once. ‘It’s not him. Do you hear me? It’s not him.’

Everett shook with released tension. He thought he might throw up now, not from the vile rotting nausea of the corpse, but from relief at who the corpse was not. His dad. He heard Sen mumble something in Palari. He knew it pretty well now, but Sen spoke so low and fast, with so many dialect words, he could not make her out.

‘Sen, what is it?’

‘He’s dressed Airish style. I think I knows it. I think it’s ’Appening Ed.’

At first Everett could not place the name, then he remembered. Charlotte Villiers had led her Sharpies into Hackney Great Port to try to seize the Infundibulum by force. She had been met by a mob of roused, anarchic Airish, who had no truck with police on their territory. They had been led by a short, angry man – ’Appening Ed. Charlotte Villiers had pulled a gun and made him disappear. It had been the first time Everett had seen what a jumpgun could do. So this was where he had been sent. And something in this red rainforest had killed him. This red rainforest, in this world where the sun didn’t obey normal physics, and even the world didn’t obey proper, spherical geometry.

‘Sen, we need to get back to the crew. There’s something you need to know about this world. Something really important.’


Excerpted from Empress of the Sun by Ian McDonald. Copyright © 2014 by Ian McDonald.
First published in Great Britain in 2014 by Jo Fletcher Books, an imprint of 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.

Darkness Descending by Ken Jones – Extract

Darkness Descending

 

Introduction

Avalanche

I reached the ice wall in well under an hour, and, even though most of the work had been done by sliding on my ass, I was exhausted. The day was drawing to a close, and in 90 minutes it would be dark. Despite my scare earlier that afternoon I decided I would try for the summit again the next day and set off a few hours before first light. The slopes would freeze over with the cold of the night and the going would be firmer. I got back to my feet and walked steadily downwards. My plan was to drop a couple of hundred metres in height and find a safe place to bivi under the shelter of the trees, a good distance away from any spill channelled into the firebreak. More than anything now I was looking forward to the warmth of my sleeping bag and a hot cup of tea.

Even though I loved the feeling of metal going into ice, I lacked the energy and concentration to put my crampons back on so decided to hug the tree line and go round the sides of the ice wall where I wouldn’t need them. Just as I was backing up on all fours to lower myself off a boulder, there was a distinct crack from high above me. The sound was sharp, crisp and sudden, its echo travelling downwards and flooding the open slope with a low-pitched groan. After a moment of perfect silence came a second jolt. My heart stopped, and for a few seconds I was rendered incapable of doing anything.

Avalanche!

A large part of the snow-covered ridge nearly 50 metres wide fractured in a crown shape about 500 metres above me, causing a section of the mountain to seemingly detach itself, cutting out a jagged line across the slope. At first, it slid away neatly, its motion almost uniform, then as it gathered energy and momentum, it hurtled down towards me with increased speed, churning up the smooth slopes and spitting out snow with such a force that it blocked out the sky with a white mist. It came down faster than I could have imagined, the noise and tremor was everywhere and right on top of me all at the same time. My normally wide and vigilant sense of awareness was suddenly constricted to a narrow, singular sensation of terror. I stood stupefied and unmoving, staring open mouthed like an imbecile, totally unable to remove my eyes and turn my body away from the scene that was unfolding. I was experiencing a moment of pure naked fear, of an intensity far beyond anything I knew.

PART ONE

There are moments in difficult situations, far away, that there is no more doubt. There, the questions are gone. And I think these are the important moments. If the question is gone, I have not to answer. Myself living, I am the answer.
Reinhold Messner

 

Chapter one

From the smoke to the snow

Elvis Hostel – The Day Before . . .

With all my kit waterproofed and spread across the dormitory floor, I began packing it into a large canoe sack, making sure that the items I’d need most frequently were near the top: sleeping and bivi bag, poncho with bungee cords attached, long johns and sweatshirt, spare socks and gloves. Next, two broken down 24-hour ration packs stuffed into two mess tins, a gas stove and a hexamine stove with windproof matches and tablets inside, followed by a set of army issue DPM Gore-Tex jacket and trousers. At the top of my Bergen, I crammed in a smaller canoe sack which held nothing more than spare socks, a flask and a bottle of water. Inside the top flap interior compartment I kept a spare Maglite torch, a second disposable camera and a small first aid and wash kit. The outside zip pouch at the back held a full water bottle, and strapped onto the sides were an ice axe and crampons. Essential utility items, like my Leatherman tool and Silva compass were tied into my jacket pockets. I had decided to leave my GPS, satellite phone and rescue flares under my bed in Manchester. I had brought my cell phone but hadn’t even turned it on. I knew there was no chance of it working in the mountains, and besides, I didn’t want technological support: the essence of my plan was to disconnect to connect.

Long before I’d arrived in Romania my central plan had been to make my way out to the Fagaras range and climb Mount Moldoveanu, at over 2,500 metres, it was the country’s highest peak. This part of the Transylvanian Alps was wild and remote, and although dwarfed in height by the main European Alps, the area was far less trodden by alpinists and ascents of the peaks in the winter months were few and far between. This was to be my big challenge, the means to test myself in a way that revived the sense of adventure I had missed since leaving the army. As with any new climb, there was doubt: I was going alone and knew the conditions would be harsh. I knew from the start that climbing skills here would be less important than the capacity to endure whatever challenges the mountain might throw at me. But despite the risks of going solo, climbing in the Fagaras would bring everything I was looking for at this time in my life: self-reliance, meaning, physical challenge, escape from routine and contact with nature and its beauty. Above all, I wanted to be out in the world, breaking my own trails.

Setting Off . . .

The morning air cut into me as I paced up and down the length of the platform of Brasov train station trying to keep warm. Falling snowflakes swarmed like bees around the small balls of yellow light emitted by the station lamps. Outside the electric glow they were invisible, their cold touch on my face the only sign of their existence. I stared down at the tracks that were glazed with frost and thought how cold and hard everything looked. The day was like lead.

I began to wonder why I wasn’t still in bed as my mind posted warm images of friends back home sitting cosily around the fireplace of some quaint village pub as they celebrated the New Year. Then I thought of all the other backpackers at the hostel, probably still sound asleep under their duvets. I knew that in a few hours they’d be emerging from their beds for brunch before hitting the ski slopes. Later they’d be eating out together before a night of partying in the old-town bars. In these moments I felt alone, it was something entirely different to true loneliness, but still a strong enough feeling for me to miss my friends and the festive cheer of back home. Although I was never usually troubled by lack of companionship, there were moments when travelling that I got caught on my own. It was one of the drawbacks of travelling by yourself, those infrequent moments of separation and lack of contact. You can’t just manufacture friendship or a bond out of thin air: it’s something that comes naturally and often by chance, so until the world sees fit, you just have to settle for your own company. Those who have exposed themselves to the sheer uncertainty of solo travel will understand: sometimes it’s all worth it, at others you wonder what on earth you’re doing.

I knew that in many ways I was missing out. Although I did sometimes think about embarking on a more normal way of life, it never quite seemed to happen. Instead I was always in the midst of a challenge or planning my next adventure. I’d lost count of the times I had walked past bar windows and been called in by friends out having a good time. Too often I had to make my excuses and walk on because I was in the middle of some training regime. It could be a frustrating and solitary existence, yet there was always that moment when I knew it had all been worth it. The training would pay off and I would be able to enjoy rare and privileged freedoms. I had an adventurous and unconventional spirit and such a way of life was in my nature. After all I had experienced, I still held the philosophy that real adventure was made up of more than distant lands and mountain tops, rather it lay in one’s readiness to exchange the comforts of domestic certainty for an uncertain resting place and the constant surprises that a restless life brought in its train.

Watching the countryside rolling by from the train window, my feelings shifted from melancholy to a kind of contentment. Moments like this, far away from everyone and everything, gave me the rare opportunity to take stock and reflect upon the hectic and non-stop adventures of the last few years. Life had been eventful. I had served nearly four years as a Paratrooper followed by two years as a Special Forces soldier. Now, at twenty-six, I was living a different kind of life as a student studying politics at Manchester University. My new lifestyle was challenging and a world away from anything I had previously known. I was older than my fellow students and certainly felt different, even out of place to some extent. But I’d ended up being in my element, I made new friends, the sort I would otherwise never have met, I enjoyed my classes and had plenty of time to go travelling and off on adventures.

As I considered the events that had got me where I was today, it occurred to me for the first time how fateful one moment of indiscipline had been in directing the course of my life and pushing me away from the military and back to education. As a young boy I’d been fascinated by all things army and spent many a weekend dressed in camouflage fatigues trespassing and sneaking around in the nearby military training area with my brother and some of our more unruly friends from the nearby village. As my interest grew, I would look through my dad’s old books and stare in awe at worn black and white photographs of soldiers on SAS ‘Selection’, marching over the misty and snowy summits of the Brecon Beacons, rifles in hand and heavy-looking packs on their back. I’d been fascinated by the ability of its members to operate in any environment and had been massively impressed by stories of their legendary fitness capabilities, men who would think nothing of running 20 miles with a backpack full of bricks.

Aside from my soldierly ambitions I was a keen sportsman. The headmaster of my primary school was a former RAF officer who put a strong emphasis on sports and games, so from an early age I was always drawn towards keeping fit and an outdoor life. Growing up in the Shropshire countryside gave me a strong taste for forests, mountains and the possibilities they held for a young boy with adventure and mischief in his blood. As I got older my interest in the army was diverted, but following disastrous A-level results that left me with no chance of gaining entry into a decent university, my ideas and ambitions for a military career were revived. I’d seen TV documentaries on the Parachute Regiment and Royal Marine Commandos and knew that they were regarded as having the toughest entry requirements and being among the best fighting units in the world. I applied for both at the same time and joined the Paras as they offered the earliest opportunity to commence basic recruit training. My time as a Paratrooper was some of the best and worst in my life, and although it was something I was extremely proud of, after serving out my minimum engagement I signed off with the intention of fulfilling my ambition of attempting the Special Forces Selection course, albeit through somewhat unusual channels.

After passing Selection I served for two years, spending some time with the reserves and also the SBS (Special Boat Service). This part of my military career was without doubt the most enjoyable and satisfying and I grew both as a person and a soldier. It was there I gained skills and met friends that would have a lasting influence on the next phase of my life and who would inspire me to believe that attending university and maintaining links with the military at the same time were possible. At my first interview at Sterling Lines, the old SAS base in Hereford, the OC (Officer Commanding) asked me if I’d ever considered going to university. He said that passing Selection was very far from a certainty in spite of my Parachute Regiment background and I should have a strong and worthwhile Plan B. He also said that many soldiers left the SAS regretting having not educated themselves.

The catalyst that initiated the change was the act that got me temporarily discharged from the reserves, but the buildup of disciplinary incidents had been long preceded by my feeling that I wasn’t fully cut out or suitable for long-term service life. I was an individualist and a fanatical lover of freedom, but more than anything, I found it difficult to rein myself in when faced with the stifling routine and regulations of peacetime barrack life. Having a courageous tongue and little respect for authority were characteristics that didn’t mesh well with army life and had got me into regular trouble. Gradually the way I saw myself, my colleagues and my future in the military system, in particular in the Parachute Regiment, began to change. It was ironic that the same inquisitiveness and sense of adventure that had led me to join the army in the first place would eventually push me in another direction. Regardless of my shifting perspectives and less than exemplary conduct, I had been an accomplished soldier and was still caught in a state of uncertainty as to whether I should return as a full-time soldier or not after university. I had enjoyed the physical challenge and learning specialist skills, but most of all I missed the camaraderie. I’d even gone as far as volunteering for the Royal Marine Commando Test to ingratiate myself with those who could facilitate a return to my former Naval Special Forces unit. The build-up training was to start in three weeks after the Christmas break, and as a reservist this time, I would still be able to maintain my studies. It promised to offer me the best of both worlds and I was excited.

As I left the city limits behind I was greeted with picturebook views of a timeless rural landscape, where medieval villages survived virtually untouched by the twenty-first century. There were no hedgerows and few fences, just field after field of browns and yellowy greens with the occasional dusting of snow, all interlocked in a rough patchwork of colours. Giant rounded hay mounds covered with ropeddown tarpaulin dotted the fields in random patterns, and the villages and farmhouses also looked to be from a bygone age with windmills, watermills and here and there a horse-drawn cart. All my life I’d dreamt of visiting the Transylvanian wilds, a place Bram Stoker described as sinister and haunted, but instead I found myself looking at a world more reminiscent of Tolkien’s Shire from The Hobbit. I took some photos from the train window, wishing I had something better than my crappy disposable camera.

An hour into the journey I caught my first glimpse of the mountains, a giant mass of rock and snow emerging from the tapestry of a multi-coloured landscape. The train veered off and I lost sight of them behind woodland and pockets of dead ground. When they came back into sight they looked magnificent and captivating; the edges of the peaks sharpened like daggers as the sun hit them from behind.

Rising above all but a few peaks of nearly equal height was Moldoveanu. At over 2,500 metres, it was the highest of the Fagaras mountains, which although proudly independent as a range, was part of the Carpathian chain stretching in a great arc for 1,500 kilometres from the Czech Republic to Romania and the Iron Gates on the river Danube.

At a rail junction further ahead, I noticed some tracks leading into a guarded military compound. The base roused my interest as I knew that a squadron from my old army unit had only recently trained in this very area. I had received a humorous report from a friend telling me their Romanian hosts were pretty sneaky, and during meal time one day they had sent a female cleaner to spy on the squadron’s accommodation block. He joked that ‘any soldier worth his salt knows nobody ever cleans up after you in the army, no matter how hospitable the host nation’. The cleaner went about her duties, and was eventually caught by the sentry as she attempted to examine and photograph the unit’s secret UHF radio communication devices. ‘Had she got away with it, the intelligence would have been in Moscow before we’d finished dessert,’ he said.

Although it was all seen as a bit of a laugh, they knew not to turn their back on the Romanian army and its spies. This memory contributed to a sense of unease at odds with the exhilaration I’d been feeling.

I slept for a good part of the journey and when I woke the landscape outside had completely transformed. Rural charm had been replaced by a wild Carpathia of jagged mountains, deep ink-black forests and old stone forts with crooked battlements guarding secret corridors into the mountain valleys. I felt a mounting joy – this was the Romania I had come to see. This was a place of myth and legend, where the distant howl of the wolf still chilled the night air, where bears left their claw marks on the towering pines and the lynx lurked ghost-like among the high forests and crags. My excitement reached a crescendo as a scene that could have been straight from a Dracula film eerily presented itself. Strategically positioned on a rocky outcrop was a grim and mythical-looking old stone fortress with a solitary tower, surrounded by an evil-looking wood. All that was needed to cap the scene off was a flurry of bats, but it wasn’t to be.

I’d always wanted to visit some of the castles connected with the Dracula myth, especially Castle Bran, supposedly the home of the titular character in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I’d read the book when I was thirteen years old but had been gripped by the myth since seeing Christopher Lee playing the count at an even younger age. I was eager to see the country for myself and connect the myth of Dracula to the legend of Vlad Tepes, or Vlad the Impaler, whose history had been incorporated with the fictional account of Dracula’s past in Stoker’s original works. In a Bucharest museum I’d seen copies of old German woodcuts depicting Vlad’s cruelty: feasting on steaks while his executioner cut off body parts of other impaled victims. Legend had it that the invading Ottoman army retreated in fright at the sight of thousands of rotting and impaled corpses lining the banks of the Danube.

Seeing Fagaras town in the distance I felt the early tingle of excitement and anticipation. After being cooped up in Manchester I couldn’t wait to get stuck into the heart of the country and the bones of my trip. I would ski, climb, explore and hopefully encounter some wildlife. I had high expectations of Fagaras. The guidebook had said it was remote, traditional and beautiful, but then it had also said that Bucharest was the Paris of the East. To me Romania’s capital had felt soulless, as if it had been eaten by Paris and vomited out as some vile grey northern town from back home thirty years ago. I’d been glad to leave. My first impressions of Fagaras weren’t great either, the streets were smeared with old snow and everything in the immediate vicinity had an old, dirty and broken look about it. A huge factory on the edge of town scarred the landscape, with thick black smoke spilling from its towering chimneys, sending a cumulus of grey filth up into the sky and making the town seem darker than it really was.

A busy market ran along two of the side streets, finishing at the far end of the station. A bevy of red-faced women passed hurriedly by, balancing large bundles on their shoulders and carrying bright, colourful bags, heavily laden with wares. I walked over to one of the stalls and bought some chocolate, receiving plenty of friendly and curious smiles from everyone who passed me. A group of shifty-looking taxi drivers had followed me down into the market, and in recognition of my foreignness, took turns in offering me an array of rip-off prices to a ‘very cheap’ hotel they knew. I ignored their offers and walked back to the station car park where official-looking taxi drivers stood chatting, smoking and drinking coffee.

I approached the group and explained that I wanted to go into the mountains, repeating the name ‘Moldoveanu’ to make sure I was understood. A group discussion ensued over my destination with much tooth sucking and wild gesticulations to indicate that the roads would be snowed in, that only a fool would attempt such a journey and even then it would require a suitably mountainous fare. I looked at their shiny new cars and understood further efforts would be wasted – nobody with a nice set of wheels would be willing to risk it in the mountains. My best bet lay with one of the devious-looking characters who had followed me back up to assess my progress. I stood my ground and eventually managed to isolate one of them. They were like pack animals, far less fearsome when alone, especially when it came to negotiating. After much haggling and feigning of ‘I’ll go elsewhere’, I managed to agree a price acceptable to both of us, which worked out at roughly eight English pounds in old Romanian lei. When it came down to the specifics of my destination, the driver’s unofficial status became more evident. Beyond the village of Victoria he had no idea where he was heading. Despite showing him my map, which he studied intently, he obviously didn’t have a clue.

My Bergen was squeezed into the boot and I jumped in the front of his car, an old green Dacia close to falling apart. As soon as we’d set off the driver started popping sunflower seeds on the car cigarette lighter, the empty shells of which had already filled the ashtray to the brim and were close to spilling over. The car reeked with the stale odour of cigarette ash and burnt shells, the radio was played on full blast, blaring out some bizarre and terrible song which he seemed to be enjoying. Despite the state of his death trap vehicle I couldn’t help noticing how thoroughly cheerful he was, driving along, and munching away to the beat of the music after having secured what was probably a great fare. I was just grateful that he had been willing to take on the journey.

Leaving town we crossed over a part-frozen river and headed south towards the north face of the mountains. As we drove deeper into the countryside the tarmac ended and turned into dirt road with tall banks of snow on either side. The only metalled road through the Fagaras Mountains was the Transfagarasan, the famous highway that cut the range from north to south across the valley of Balea. Connecting Transylvania to Walachia, the route twisted its way up to 2,000 metres at its highest point, passing more than forty lakes. The highway lay a good hour’s drive west from Fagaras during the winter months, and despite the network of aqueducts, bridges and tunnels bored through the mountain, the risk presented by avalanches, rock fall and the depth of snow on the upper reaches meant the road was closed from October to June. Not to be put off, after climbing Moldoveanu, I planned to hire some Nordic skis, fit on some skins and telemark my way to the top. Aside from the challenge, I wanted to go up to Castle Pionerai, which was constructed by Vlad Tepes and was considered the authentic Dracula’s castle, unlike the more touristy Bran castle. Like today, the main obstacle would be getting there as the trekking routes in the Fagaras were always about 15 kilometres from the train station and no buses ran there. If all went well I could take a taxi as far up the highway as the snow line would allow and ski up from there. I was a mountain goat and loved going up, but coming down was sure to be a grand reward for my endeavours.

Our route into the Fagaras foothills lay along a far more minor route and the car was soon jolting and skidding as the conditions got progressively worse. I began to think we would never get through as I could tell that even a jeep would have had difficulty. The car soon began spinning and sliding across the road, almost completely out of control. My driver kept his foot down, somehow managing to stay on the road and avoid crashing or rolling the vehicle. His fingers still tapped on the steering wheel to the beat of music, while he continued popping his sunflower seeds and spitting the empty shells out of the window. He remained unflustered as the roads quickly turned from difficult to downright dangerous. I was sure they would soon become impassable, especially in this old car. It got to a point where I wouldn’t have held it against him if he’d refused to go on, yet the old Dacia kept going. The driver made a series of half confident turns at each junction, beckoning me to indicate which way to go. I’d cut my map down to the area of the mountains and foothills to make it smaller, so I wasn’t much use as a navigator. As for my driver, he was either taking lucky guesses or had a good instinct for direction.

The road eventually took us past a small military outpost. A soldier in a long grey trench coat stood guarding the front gate, carrying out his shift on sentry duty. The crazy driver skidded to a halt and asked me to wind down my window. I found the handle was missing, so opened the door instead. He leaned across me and shouted for directions over the blare of his radio and the still-running engine. The soldier yelled back, followed by some hand movements signalling the way. After a moment’s pause, he began shaking his head while offering more advice. Even I could understand he was telling us the way was likely to be blocked. Fortunately my driver would hear nothing of it and we were moving again before I had even shut the door, keeping the revs up in a high gear so the wheels didn’t spin. Shortly after, we hit a wide road covered in a thick layer of frozen slush. The conditions were so treacherous, I was convinced we would come off the road at any moment and end up in one of the deep trenches that lined either side. The car began sliding, lurching from one skid to another and at one point the driver lost all control, and we found ourselves travelling sideways towards the ditch at high speed. I locked my arms out and pushed against the dashboard, genuinely holding on for dear life. I could tell the driver was slightly concerned as it was the first time he’d stopped stuffing his face with sunflower seeds. I released an arm and grasped the plastic hand grip above my head, bracing myself for a crash that miraculously never happened.

Heading up into the foothills, the car began to struggle, making an orchestra of clanks and bangs while pouring a thick, black, oily smoke from its exhaust. After fifteen minutes the way levelled off and we passed through miles of dark forests with small clusters of mysterious wooden houses, hidden away in neat circular clearings. These were the final pockets of civilization where I had least expected them. A few kilometres after the last of these secret villages we came to a fork in the track. The driver beckoned me to make a choice while I checked the map, before he decided to take a right anyway. Beyond the turn off, the road began to twist and dip again, the terrain became wilder as the forest closed in around us, cloaking the narrow pass in its darkening shadows. After a short drive we passed two farmers talking at the side of the road. My driver skidded to a halt and reversed until the car was alongside them. They eyed us as though we were fools as we checked with them for directions, and then sent us back the way we’d come. As the driver skilfully turned his vehicle to face the opposite direction, I noticed a large wooden structure tucked into the far end of a clearing in the woods behind the two men. It was the last building I would see for four days.

Back at the junction, we took the other fork and continued for five minutes before the driver decided we had come far enough and pulled over to one side. Looking at me with sternness in his eyes, he spat out another sunflower shell and pointed towards the mountains. I didn’t understand a single word of what he said, but he seemed to be warning me that the mountains were dangerous, especially these ones. After paying him the agreed fare plus a generous tip for his heroics on the road, he followed me out of the car and lifted my Bergen from the boot and onto my back, giving me a hearty slap on the shoulder as he did so. I liked the driver and admired his disregard for the road and its conditions. He could have backed out and dropped me short, but he finished the job and got me to the mountains. Just getting this far felt like a small victory. I shook his hand, then watched him going back down the road until the Dacia disappeared from sight, a dot of green in a wilderness of white. Minutes later I could still hear the engine being thrashed as he skidded and swerved his way home.


Excerpted from Darkness Descending by Ken Jones. Copyright © 2014 by Ken Jones.
First published in Great Britain in 2014 by Quercus Editions Ltd, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW.
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