Category Archives: November 2013

The Naturals by Jennifer Lynn Barnes – Extract

The Naturals

YOU

You’ve chosen and chosen well. Maybe this one will be the one who stops you. Maybe she’ll be different. Maybe she’ll be enough.

The only thing that is certain is that she’s special.

You think it’s her eyes—not the color: an icy, see-through blue. Not the lashes, or the shape, or the way she doesn’t need eyeliner to give them the appearance of a cat’s.

No, it’s what’s behind those icy blues that brings the audience out in droves. You feel it, every time you look at her. The certainty. The knowing. That otherworldly glint she uses to convince people that she’s the real deal.

Maybe she is.

Maybe she really can see things. Maybe she knows things. Maybe she’s everything she claims to be and more. But watching her, counting her breaths, you smile, because deep down, you know that she isn’t going to stop you.

You don’t really want her to stop you. She’s fragile.

Perfect. Marked.

And the one thing this so-called psychic won’t see coming is you.


 

CHAPTER 1

The hours were bad. The tips were worse, and the majority of my coworkers definitely left something to be desired, but c’est la vie, que sera sera, insert foreign language cliché of your choice here. It was a summer job, and that kept Nonna off my back. It also prevented my various aunts, uncles, and kitchen-sink cousins from feeling like they had to offer me temporary employment in their restaurant/butcher shop/legal practice/boutique. Given the size of my father’s very large, very extended (and very Italian) family, the possibilities were endless, but it was always a variation on the same theme.

My dad lived half a world away. My mother was missing, presumed dead. I was everyone’s problem and nobody’s.

Teenager, presumed troubled. “Order up!”

With practiced ease, I grabbed a plate of pancakes (side of bacon) with my left hand and a two-handed breakfast burrito (jalapeños on the side) with my right. If the SATs didn’t go well in the fall, I had a real future ahead of me in the crappy diner industry.

“Pancakes with a side of bacon. Breakfast burrito, jalapeños on the side.” I slid the plates onto the table. “Anything else I can get for you gentlemen?”

Before either of them opened their mouths, I knew exactly what these two were going to say. The guy on the left was going to ask for extra butter. And the guy on the right? He was going to need another glass of water before he could even think about those jalapeños.

Ten-to-one odds, he didn’t even like them.

Guys who actually liked jalapeños didn’t order them on the side. Mr. Breakfast Burrito just didn’t want people to think he was a wuss—only the word he would have used wasn’t wuss.

Whoa there, Cassie, I told myself sternly. Let’s keep it PG. As a general rule, I didn’t curse much, but I had a bad habit of picking up on other people’s quirks. Put me in a room with a bunch of English people, and I’d walk out with a British accent. It wasn’t intentional—I’d just spent a lot of time over the years getting inside other people’s heads.

Occupational hazard. Not mine. My mother’s.

“Could I get a few more of these butter packets?” the guy on the left asked.

I nodded—and waited.

“More water,” the guy on the right grunted. He puffed out his chest and ogled my boobs.

I forced a smile. “I’ll be right back with that water.” I managed to keep from adding pervert to the end of that sentence, but only just.

I was still holding out hope that a guy in his late twenties who pretended to like spicy food and made a point of staring at his teenage waitress’s chest like he was training for the Ogling Olympics might be equally showy when it came to leaving tips.

Then again, I thought as I went for refills, he might turn out to be the kind of guy who stiffs the little bitty waitress just to prove he can.

Absentmindedly, I turned the details of the situation over in my mind: the way that Mr. Breakfast Burrito was dressed; his likely occupation; the fact that his friend, who’d ordered the pancakes, was wearing a much more expensive watch.

He’ll fight to grab the check, then tip like crap.

I hoped I was wrong—but was fairly certain that I wasn’t. Other kids spent their preschool years singing their way through the ABCs. I grew up learning a different alphabet. Behavior, personality, environment—my mother called them the BPEs, and they were the tricks of her trade. Thinking that way wasn’t the kind of thing you could just turn off— not even once you were old enough to understand that when your mother told people she was psychic, she was lying, and when she took their money, it was fraud.

Even now that she was gone, I couldn’t keep from figuring people out, any more than I could give up breathing, blinking, or counting down the days until I turned eighteen. “Table for one?” A low, amused voice jostled me back into reality. The voice’s owner looked like the type of boy who would have been more at home in a country club than a diner. His skin was perfect, his hair artfully mussed. Even though he phrased his words like they were a question, they weren’t—not really.

“Sure,” I said, grabbing a menu. “Right this way.”

A closer observation told me that Country Club was about my age. A smirk played across his perfect features, and he walked with the swagger of high school nobility. Just looking at him made me feel like a serf.

“This okay?” I asked, leading him to a table near the window.

“This is fine,” he said, slipping into the chair. Casually, he surveyed the room with bulletproof confidence. “You get a lot of traffic in here on weekends?”

“Sure,” I replied. I was starting to wonder if I’d lost the ability to speak in complex sentences. From the look on the boy’s face, he probably was, too. “I’ll give you a minute to look over the menu.”

He didn’t respond, and I spent my minute bringing Pancakes and Breakfast Burrito their checks, plural. I figured that if I split it in half, I might end up with half a decent tip. “I’ll be your cashier whenever you’re ready,” I said, fake smile firmly in place.

I turned back toward the kitchen and caught the boy by the window watching me. It wasn’t an I’m ready to order stare. I wasn’t sure what it was, actually—but every bone in my body told me it was something. The niggling sensation that there was a key detail that I was missing about this whole situation—about him—wouldn’t go away. Boys like that didn’t usually eat in places like this.

They didn’t stare at girls like me.

Self-conscious and wary, I crossed the room.

“Did you decide what you’d like?” I asked. There was no getting out of taking his order, so I let my hair fall in my face, obscuring his view of it.

“Three eggs,” he said, hazel eyes fixed on what he could see of mine. “Side of pancakes. Side of ham.”

I didn’t need to write the order down, but I suddenly found myself wishing for a pen, just so I’d have something to hold on to. “What kind of eggs?” I asked.

“You tell me.” The boy’s words caught me off guard.

“Excuse me?”

“Guess,” he said.

I stared at him through the wisps of hair still covering my face. “You want me to guess how you want your eggs cooked?”

He smiled. “Why not?”

And just like that, the gauntlet was thrown.

“Not scrambled,” I said, thinking out loud. Scrambled eggs were too average, too common, and this was a guy who liked to be a little bit different. Not too different, though, which ruled out poached—at least in a place like this. Sunny-side up would have been too messy for him; over hard wouldn’t be messy enough.

“Over easy.” I was as sure of the conclusion as I was of the color of his eyes. He smiled and closed his menu.

“Are you going to tell me if I was right?” I asked—not because I needed confirmation, but because I wanted to see how he would respond.

The boy shrugged. “Now, where would the fun be in that?”

I wanted to stay there, staring, until I figured him out, but I didn’t. I put his order in. I delivered his food. The lunch rush snuck up on me, and by the time I went back to check on him, the boy by the window was gone. He hadn’t even waited for his check—he’d just left twenty dollars on the table. I had just about decided that he could make me play guessing games to his heart’s content for a twelve-dollar tip when I noticed the bill wasn’t the only thing he’d left.

There was also a business card.

I picked it up. Stark white. Black letters. Evenly spaced. There was a seal in the upper left-hand corner, but relatively little text: a name, a job title, a phone number. Across the top of the card, there were four words, four little words that knocked the wind out of me as effectively as a jab to the chest.

I pocketed the card—and the tip. I went back to the kitchen. I caught my breath. And then I looked at it again.

Tanner Briggs. The name.

Special Agent. Job title.

Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Four words, but I stared at them so hard that my vision blurred and I could only make out three letters.

What in the world had I done to attract the attention of the FBI?

CHAPTER 2

After an eight-hour shift, my body was bone tired, but my mind was whirring. I wanted to shut myself in my room, collapse on my bed, and figure out what the Hello Kitty had happened that afternoon.

Unfortunately, it was Sunday.

“There she is! Cassie, we were just about to send the boys out looking for you.” My aunt Tasha was among the more reasonable of my father’s various siblings, so she didn’t wink and ask me if I’d found myself a boyfriend to occupy my time.

That was Uncle Rio’s job. “Our little heartbreaker, eh? You out there breaking hearts? Of course she is!”

I’d been a regular fixture at Sunday night dinners ever since Social Services had dropped me off on my father’s doorstep—metaphorically, thank God—when I was twelve. After five years, I still hadn’t ever heard Uncle Rio ask a question that he did not immediately proceed to answer himself.

“I don’t have a boyfriend,” I said. This was a well-established script, and that was my line. “Promise.”

“What are we talking about?” one of Uncle Rio’s sons asked, plopping himself down on the living room sofa, dangling his legs over the side.

“Cassie’s boyfriend,” Uncle Rio replied.

I rolled my eyes. “I don’t have a boyfriend.”

“Cassie’s secret boyfriend,” Uncle Rio amended.

“I think you have me confused with Sofia and Kate,” I said. Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t have thrown any of my female cousins under the bus, but desperate times called for desperate measures. “They’re far more likely to have secret boyfriends than I am.”

“Bah,” Uncle Rio said. “Sofia’s boyfriends are never secret.”

And on it went—good-natured ribbing, family jokes. I played the part, letting their energy infect me, saying what they wanted me to say, smiling the smiles they wanted to see. It was warm and safe and happy—but it wasn’t me.

It never was.

As soon as I was sure I wouldn’t be missed, I ducked into the kitchen.

“Cassandra. Good.” My grandmother, elbow-deep in flour, her gray hair pulled into a loose bun at the nape of her neck, gave me a warm smile. “How was work?”

Despite her little-old-lady appearance, Nonna ruled the entire family like a general directing her troops. Right now, I was the one drifting out of formation.

“Work was work,” I said. “Not bad.”

“But not good, either?” She narrowed her eyes.

If I didn’t play this right, I’d have ten job offers within the hour. Family took care of family—even when “family” was perfectly capable of taking care of herself.

“Today was actually decent,” I said, trying to sound cheerful. “Someone left me a twelve-dollar tip.”

And also, I added silently, a business card from the FBI.

“Good,” Nonna said. “That is good. You had a good day.”

“Yeah, Nonna,” I said, crossing the room to kiss her cheek, because I knew it would make her happy. “It was a good day.”

By the time everyone cleared out at nine, the card felt like lead in my pocket. I tried to help Nonna with the dishes, but she shooed me upstairs. In the quiet of my own room, I could feel the energy draining out of me, like air out of a slowly wilting balloon.

I sat down on my bed and then let myself fall backward. The old springs groaned with the impact, and I closed my eyes. My right hand found its way to my pocket, and I pulled out the card.

It was a joke. It had to be. That was why the pretty, country-club boy had felt off to me. That was why he’d taken an interest—to mock me.

But he didn’t really seem the type.

I opened my eyes and looked at the card. This time, I let myself read it out loud. “Special Agent Tanner Briggs. Federal Bureau of Investigation.”

A few hours in my pocket hadn’t changed the text on the card. FBI? Seriously? Who was this guy trying to kid? He’d looked sixteen, seventeen, max.

Not like a special agent.

Just special. I couldn’t push that thought down, and my eyes flitted reflexively toward the mirror on my wall. It was one of the great ironies of my life that I’d inherited all of my mother’s features, but none of the magic with which they’d come together on her face. She’d been beautiful. I was odd—odd-looking, oddly quiet, always the odd one out.

Even after five years, I still couldn’t think of my mother without thinking of the last time I’d seen her, shooing me out of her dressing room, a wide smile on her face. Then I thought about coming back to the dressing room. About the blood—on the floor, on the walls, on the mirror. I hadn’t been gone long. I’d opened the door—

“Snap out of it,” I told myself. I sat up and pushed my back up against the headboard, unable to quit thinking about the smell of blood and that moment of knowing it was my mother’s and praying it wasn’t.

What if that was what this was about? What if the card wasn’t a joke? What if the FBI was looking into my mother’s murder?

It’s been five years, I told myself. But the case was still open. My mother’s body had never been found. Based on the amount of blood, that was what the police had been looking for from the beginning.

A body.

I turned the business card over in my hands. On the back, there was a handwritten note.

Cassandra, it said, PLEASE CALL.

That was it. My name, and then the directive to call, in capital letters. No explanation. No nothing.

Below those words, someone else had scribbled a second set of instructions in small, sharp letters—barely readable. I traced my finger over the letters and thought about the boy from the diner.

Maybe he wasn’t the special agent.

So that makes him what? The messenger?

I didn’t have an answer, but the words scrawled across the bottom of the card stood out to me, every bit as much as Special Agent Tanner Briggs’s PLEASE CALL.

If I were you, I wouldn’t.


 

YOU

You’re good at waiting. Waiting for the right moment. Waiting for the right girl. You have her now, and still, you’re waiting. Waiting for her to wake up. Waiting for her to open those eyes and see you.

Waiting for her to scream. And scream.

And scream.

And realize that no one can hear her but you.

You know how this will go, how she’ll be angry, then scared, then swear up and down that if you let her go, she won’t tell a soul. She’ll lie to you, and she’ll try to manipulate you, and you’ll have to show her—the way you’ve showed so many others—how that just won’t do.

But not yet. Right now, she’s still sleeping. Beautiful—but not as beautiful as she will be when you’re done.


Excerpted from The Naturals by Jennifer Lynn Barnes. Copyright © 2013 by Jennifer Lynn Barnes.
First published in 2013 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.

Advertisements

The Flavours of Love by Dorothy Koomson – Extract

The Flavours of Love

prologue

‘Are you going to tell the police?’ she asks.

‘I think I have to,’ I say. My mouth is dry, my mind is racing to so many different places and thoughts and decisions all at once, I can’t keep up. I can’t hold a single thought in my head for too long because another dashes into its place. Air keeps snagging itself on the way in and out of my lungs so I haven’t taken a proper breath since my daughter started to speak, and my heart is running cold with the knowledge of who it was that killed my husband. And why.

I have to tell the police this, of course I do. ‘Please don’t, Mum.’

‘But, Phoebe—’

‘Please don’t, Mum. Please. Please. Please.’ Her twelve-year-old body, nestled on my lap, shakes with fretful sobs. ‘Please. Please. Please. I’m scared. I’m really scared.’

‘Phoebe, we can’t—’

‘Please, Mum. I’m really sorry, but please, don’t.’

‘Shhh, shhhhh,’ I say, rocking her, trying to hush her. This isn’t fair. None of this is fair.

‘Let’s not talk about it now. It’ll be OK, I’ll make it all OK.’


I

What’s the difference between folding and stirring?

I’m sure I knew that once upon a time, I’m sure someone told me. Apparently, you can tell whether an ingredient has been folded in or stirred in. I’ve always been a bit dubious about that, have often wondered if it’s one of those things that cooks/chefs add to the instructions to make a recipe sound more interesting or more difficult than it actually is.

Fold or stir. Stir or fold.

Ah-he-hem!’ The man sitting across the desk from me, whose body and clothes bear the hallmarks of a man deeply mired in a mid-life crisis, clears his throat in an uncomfortable manner. He’s obviously got something big to say. He needs my attention, even though my attention, my gaze, causes him to squirm a little in his seat every time I direct it at him. Every time. He doesn’t know how to share space with the woman whose husband was murdered. With me.

I know that’s how he refers to me in his head, how he talks about me to other people, because that’s how everyone refers to me – I’ve heard the whispers at the two different playgrounds I drop my children off at, in the toilets at work, in the conversations of people in the local shop and supermarket. It’s not meant nastily, it’s simply an easy, defining shorthand of someone on the edges of their life. Even now, eighteen months later, I am The Woman Whose Husband Was Murdered. Or, to give me my full title: The Woman Whose Husband Was Murdered And His Killer Was Never Caught.

Ah-he-hem!’ Another throat clear. Another squirm in his seat when I look at him.

The last time I met this man properly he wasn’t having a mid-life crisis and we were discussing how to reintegrate my daughter back into school after what had happened. He’d avoided eye contact, shuffled papers on his desk, clicked his pen on and off, and fumbled over his words, scared and uncertain of what to say. And here we are again today: same room, same nervous unease but with different clothes and a different form teacher standing beside him.

This form tutor, positioned like a silent bodyguard beside his headmaster, is male. I know him by reputation – he’s The Mr Bromsgrove. ‘The’ having been installed by playground mothers because he is youngish and good-looking, the subject of some scandalously outrageous sexual comments (despite how married they are and him not necessarily teaching their children).

Across the room, on the same side of the desk as me, sitting in a chair that couldn’t technically be further away from me unless it was outside the room, is my daughter. Phoebe Mackleroy. I don’t know, yet, what she’s done, why I’ve been called up here on my first day off in nearly a year.

She’s a good girl, I want to be able to say. This is just a blip; she’s a good girl really. But I’m not going to be able to say that, am I? Things don’t work out like that for people like me.

Ah-he-hem!’ Another throat-clear before the headteacher speaks: ‘Mrs Mackleroy. There is no easy way to break this news to you. Phoebe has made a disclosure today to her form tutor Mr Bromsgrove.’ The headmaster’s chubby, pale hand goes up to indicate the man he’s referring to. I want to correct him, remind him that he is in fact The Mr Bromsgrove, but I know that wouldn’t be appropriate so instead I allow myself to briefly glance at him and in return, The Mr Bromsgrove continues to studiously avoid my eye. The headteacher continues to speak: ‘He was unsure what to do, so came to me. We thought it best to contact you as soon as possible. Especially if it looks like we’re going to have to involve social services.’

My heart skips three beats at those magic words. I’d braced myself when the school secretary had called, I’d put down the pile of recipes scrawled on different types of paper I was leafing through and readied myself to hear the worst. But when they’d asked me to come in here and not to a hospital, when I arrived and saw Phoebe sitting in a chair, moving, breathing, living, I’d allowed myself to unclench a little, to almost fully relax.

Stupid woman that I am. I’d let myself to forget that your life can be devastated on the whim of the wind, the change of mind, a friendly push that becomes a deadly shove. Your life can change when you’re looking right at it but don’t notice the tiniest cut in a major artery.

‘There’s no easy way to tell you this, Mrs Mackleroy.’ The headmaster is still talking, as though mentioning social services doesn’t merit allowing me a moment to take that in properly, to steel myself because everything is heading in a direction that has a destination marked: ‘Hell’. ‘I’m sorry you have to hear this from me instead of Phoebe herself. We felt – all three of us – that this was the best way to tell you.’

It took two police officers to tell me an ‘incident’ meant I’d never see my husband again, why shouldn’t it take three people to tell me whatever it is that my daughter has done?

I shift to study her. The way she sits in the tulip-shaped seat – turned away like she is a sunflower and the sun is situated in the opposite direction to me – means I can’t see the top part of her body. Her grey, pleated uniform skirt exposes her knees; her long, grey regulation socks with the turquoise edging hide all the skin below her knees, disappearing into her flat, black shoes. Her hair, which she is presenting to me instead of her face, is split into two equal sections and secured into two perfect afro-puff pigtails by matching black elastic hairbands. She doesn’t look like a troublemaker, but then she never does. She looks like a girl who follows the rules, does as she’s told and is mortified at being sent to headteacher’s office.

I know what you’ve done, I think at her.

Ah-he-hem!’ goes the headteacher’s throat again, and I swivel back to him. I should know his name but I don’t. It’s a piece of information that has skipped right out of my head, replaced by the knowledge of what my fourteen-year-old daughter has done. I don’t need him to say it because I know what’s going on.

He says it anyway, because it needs to be uttered out loud, this needs to be confirmed.

‘Mrs Mackleroy, I’m afraid to say, Phoebe is about four weeks pregnant.’


II

16 years before That Day (June, 1995)

My fingers were curled tight into the edges of the armrests, my body forced back into the seat as the aeroplane, Flight 4867 to Lisbon, lurched sickeningly to the left, then was immediately flung to the right. This was why I hated flying. This was why I’d thought long and hard about whether I really, actually needed to ‘get away from it all’. I hadn’t been sure that my need to escape the anxiety and stress of being at home was worth this. Was worth taking the chance of being trapped in a metal box with only the thought of teetering in the air, waiting for the aeroplane to either glide into calmer skies or to suddenly plummet meaning I’d have to scream or cry or pray my way to impending death.

Go to Portugal, I’d told myself. It’s only two hours on a plane, I’d told myself. It’ll be fine. It’ll only be one hundred and twenty minutes. How much turbulence can be crammed into that short amount of time? Some movies are longer than that. You’ll be fine, Saffron. Absolutely fine.

I was not fine. I was clinging to the armrests of an aeroplane seat, securing my mind firmly to the present, refusing to allow my life to replay itself before my eyes because if I could stop that happening, the rest of it, the screaming/praying/crying to impending death wouldn’t happen, either.

The man seated next to me, whose girlfriend had his left hand in a vice-like grip, turned to me as the plane rollicked sideways and held out his right hand. ‘You can cling onto this hand if you want,’ he said. My gaze went from his large hand with its square, neat nails to his girlfriend. Her green eyes were wide and terrified, her straight red hair ruffled, it seemed, by fear itself, but she still managed a nod to me to communicate: ‘Go on, you idiot, grab on and squeeze tight. We’re all in this together.’

The plane swooped into a dip and his girlfriend and I both closed our eyes after letting out simultaneous ‘Ohhhhhhh’s. I immediately clamped my hand over the one proffered and clung on for sheer life as we rocked and rolled our way into Lisbon.


I’ve fallen through a pothole in time, been to one of the places in my past with Joel, and I have come back to the present with a rising and falling tide of nausea at the pit of my stomach. Usually, the memory pockets that feature Joel and our life before that day give me an unexpected little boost, a little something to allow me to carry on in the present, but not this time.

This time, the cauldron of uncertainty and worry that lives where my stomach should be continues to whisk itself into a frenzy because I’m one of those parents. Those parents. The ones you read about in the papers or magazines and shake your head at; the ones you think Where were the parents? about when you hear of something terrible involving a child. I know I’m one of those parents because here I sit with my hands folded on my lap, my face set in a neutral expression, replaying the secrets a stranger has seconds ago revealed to me about my own life.

I hate feeling sick.

I hate feeling sick even more than I hate being sick because at least once you’ve vomited, have excavated your stomach of its contents, apart from the ache in your ribs or your throat, it’s done with; gone. Nausea, though, sits at the pit of your being, mixing itself slowly and potently, occasionally rising up, threatening to spill out, before it subsides again, folding and stirring, stirring and folding itself a little more intensely as a sensation that won’t be shifting any time soon.

Right now, I feel sick.

My daughter, who still wears a school uniform, who I have to take shopping for shoes, who still has teddy bears on her bed, is pregnant.

‘Are you going to say anything, Phoebe?’ I ask my daughter, revolving in my seat to her.

Her slender, fourteen-year-old body, already twisted away from me, cringes ever so slightly – a tiny reflexive tensing of muscles – at my voice but she does not move or otherwise acknowledge me.

‘Phoebe?’ I say her name gently, carefully.

Nothing. Nothing from my daughter.

I return my line of sight to the men in front of me and focus on the youthful one, the handsome one. The Mr Bromsgrove. Why did she choose to tell him? Of all the people in the world, in this city, in this school, why did she choose to tell him? He is young, but not especially young, probably about my age, actually. Certainly old enough to be her father. He has a grade-one haircut all over, his features are strong – a man who can look like he takes no nonsense very easily, but also able to look soft and understanding an instant later. He’s slender, bordering on skinny, and wearing a form-fitting white shirt, navy suit jacket and tan corduroy trousers. His eyes, from what I can see behind his gold wire-rimmed glasses, are the same dark hazel-brown of his skin and seem kind. This is the first time I’ve regarded him properly, have noticed him, and now I can understand what the others in the playground have been whispering about. Why they have crushes on him. Why I would have had a crush on him if I were a teenager. Does my daughter? Is that why she told him this thing first? Because she thought it might bond them? Or is it more nefarious than that, does he have something to do with her condition?

My gaze goes to the headteacher. How could you allow this to happen? I want to say. When she’s not at home, she’s here, at school, so this thing must have happened on school time.

I contemplate The Mr Bromsgrove again. Has she mentioned him a little too much? Have I seen anything with his name on in her bedroom when I go in to check her computer? I am plundering my memory, trying to see if there is a moment that featured this man, this potential father of my daughter’s child. Nothing. Nothing comes to mind, or pricks my memory. He doesn’t even raise a suspicion of anything untoward happening between them.

It could have happened anywhere, I remind myself. It could have happened with anyone, because I don’t know what Phoebe does in the time between leaving school grounds and walking into our house. At home, she’s always studying, with the good marks to show for it, or she’s sitting in the corner of the sofa in the living room, phone in hand, texting away or on Facebook and Twitter and all those things I haven’t really been paying attention to. She’s home so I’ve always assumed she is safe. All the bad things happen ‘out there’. As long as she’s where I can see her most of the time, she’s safe.

‘Phoebe has declined to tell us who the father is,’ The Mr Bromsgrove says. From the corner of my eye, I see her head turn a little as she looks at him. Is she annoyed and resentful that he’s telling me this, or is she incredulous that he’s saying that when he is somehow involved? I can’t know for certain because her face is hidden from me. ‘Mrs Mackleroy, I’m not sure what you want to do right now . . .’

The headteacher leaves his sentence open and expects me to fill it. ‘Are you going to tell social services?’ I say into the gap he has left for me.

The headteacher glances at The Mr Bromsgrove, and I wonder if either of them hears Phoebe’s almost inaudible gasp. Have they noticed she’s now holding her breath? Do they realise that we’re already on the social services radar and this sort of revelation would start the whole thing up again?

The Mr Bromsgrove stares at the headteacher, then at Phoebe, then back at the headteacher. He doesn’t include me in his assessment of the situation, in fact, he’s avoided looking directly at me since I walked in here. I saw him look me over when I entered, but his visual attention to me has been conspicuous in its absence. It’s OK, I’d love to say, I know I’m a bad mother, you don’t have to avoid looking at me in case your face shows your disgust. I’m disgusted enough with me for the both of us.

The headteacher finally focuses on me again. ‘I think we should play it by ear for now, don’t you? We think it would be best if you had a talk with Phoebe, see what you plan to do and then we’ll have another meeting to discuss our options.’ His face flames a deep crimson. ‘I mean, options in the school and education sense, of course. Ah-he-hem!’ He starts to desperately shuffle papers.

The cauldron of nausea at the centre of my being folds and stirs itself much faster.


16 years before That Day (September, 1995)

‘What would you like me to make you, pretty lady?’ Joel asked me. We’d been dating for two months, not including the time we met on the plane to Lisbon and then not seeing each other again for a month, and this was our first date that didn’t involve some kind of physical activity – bowling, hillwalking (disastrous), rollerblading, rock-climbing, dry-slope skiing, clubbing. Tonight, though, he’d insisted on a slower, more relaxed date with dinner and drinks at his shared flat in Hove.

‘Nothing. I don’t think I could eat a thing.’ I rubbed my stomach to emphasise my point. ‘I’ve been eating all day, I’m stuffed.’

‘Nonsense.’ As always, his rich tones moved deliciously like warmed maple syrup through me. ‘You can have anything you like from the rather extensive selection in my fridge.’

Joel opened the door to his tall white fridge, unlocking the gateway to a world of pleasure: fresh vegetables, fresh pasta, apples, blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, butter, cheese, ham, fresh chicken, salmon were all stacked neatly onto the three shelves with raw meat, poultry and fish together, fresh veg and fruit together, deli foods sitting side by side. No open cans with their lids half on, furring up with every passing second; no putrefying foodstuffs that were going to rot away leaving a slimy pool of decay in their wake; no crusty-lidded jars with stained, faded labels.

The rest of the kitchen was pristine, too. Around the room, quite large for a two-bedroom flat, was evidence of cooking, eating, living.

The wall beside the cooker had two long shelves stacked with many different types of oils, some with suspended chilli peppers, garlic and herbs. The lower shelf had clear jars filled with different types of dried pasta, rice, beans and lentils. Below that stood a rack of dried herbs and spices. On one of the work surfaces there was a wooden knife block with six silver-handled knives – all of different sizes, I’d imagine – protruding from it. Along the sill of the large window that allowed light to pour into the kitchen, small pots of fresh herbs grew – I recognised three of them as lavender, basil and chives.

‘So, you and your mate Fynn live here all on your own?’ I said to him.

‘Yeah, have done since we got proper jobs after uni.’

‘And you’re both into cooking?’

‘No, that’s my thing. Fynn’s more into cars. And women. But mostly cars.’

‘How did two such different people manage to become such good friends?’

‘We’re not that different. Like I told you, we met at an open day for Cambridge. Kind of gravitated towards each other when we realised within ten minutes or so that we were both there to make our parents happy.’

‘Rather be a disappointment, huh?’

‘No, rather have a life. I wasn’t passionate about going there and it wouldn’t have been fair to take a place away from someone whose whole life was about going there. Same with Fynn. We met again at the interviews and exchanged numbers. After A-levels we decided to run away and live by the sea to escape the sound of our parents’ hearts breaking. We literally did nothing but work and party for a year before we both started college in Brighton.’

Closing the fridge door, I took his hand and stood staring at him for a few seconds. Just staring at him. He was easily the best-looking man I’d been ‘involved’ with. Easily. He was six foot or so, solidly built, with long, lean muscles that I kept eyeing up whenever he wore short-sleeved shirts. I hadn’t seen the rest of him in the flesh, as it were, but I was hoping to change that. I was always trying to get lost in his eyes because they were like twin whirlpools of melted mahogany fringed with pitch-black lashes. His face could have been carved from a piece of walnut wood it was so smooth and dark, and begging to have my fingers stroke it. And his mouth – it was always smiling at me. Whenever I caught him looking at me, he was always either grinning or seemed to be on the verge of doing so.

‘Didn’t see anything in the fridge you fancied, no?’ he asked and reached for the silver handle again.

‘Not exactly,’ I said. To distract and get him to focus on me, I led him out of the kitchen and into their spacious living room, where I encouraged him to sit so I could drop onto the sofa beside him. ‘I’d much rather hear more about what you got up to in that year of work and partying.’

‘Really that interested?’ he asked and his smile lit up his twenty-six-year-old face again. I was instantly jelly-like inside. He reached out and slipped his arm around my waist as I’d been longing for him to do, before he leant back onto the sofa and pulled me towards his body.

‘Oh, yes, I’m very, very interested.’


We’re at the bus stop near the school. I’d been too shaky after the call to come to St Allison to even contemplate driving and spent all the spare cash I had on a taxi to get here. I had enough to get home on the bus and Phoebe had her pass.

We are propped two widths of a normal-size person apart on the moulded plastic bench under the shelter. It’s April and I, like everyone else, am still waiting for the faintest hint of spring to join us but the weather is not cooperating. The air around us is cool but not hostile. I wish it was warmer, though, waiting for a bus would be far more pleasant if the cool air wasn’t seeping in under my jacket and playing across my skin.

‘You’re going to have to talk to me at some point,’ I say to Phoebe.

The first thing I’ve said to her since, ‘We’re going to have to get a bus’ as she stood waiting to see which direction I’d go to get to the car.

In response to this, she turns her head even further away from me, not in the direction the bus will be coming from, but towards home and back towards the school.

I stop watching her, she’s not going to look at me. I focus myself instead towards where the bus will come from and I wonder: Is she wishing herself at home, is she wishing herself back in the safety of school, or is she wishing she was anywhere but near me right now?


Excerpted from The Flavours of Love by Dorothy Koomson. Copyright © 2013 by Dorothy Koomson.
First published in Great Britain in 2013 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.

The Axe Factor by Colin Cotterill – Extract

The Axe Factor

UNPOSTED BLOG ENTRY 1
(found two weeks too late)

I write.

It’s how I earn my living. I used to think there were those who wrote and those who performed, as separate as those who dreamed and those who lived their dreams. But tonight I stepped across that line. I graduated from writer of death, to taker of life. I’ve never felt as free as I do now. If they arrest me, not that they’re likely to, I couldn’t pretend it was spontaneous: a spur-of-the-moment red rage or passion. I’d imagined it, you see? I’d pictured it vividly in solid oils rather than washed-out watercolours. It had been a recurring multi-coloured vision for so many years it was only a matter of time before it took on the grisly form of reality.

To give her credit, she hadn’t deserved all this gore. She was no more annoying than most of the women I’ve known. Perhaps she put a little too much effort into thoughts that didn’t warrant thinking. Perhaps she spoke when silence would have been the better option. But in many respects she served me well. Visitors liked her. She made a superb cup of coffee and performed her designated night-time duties to the best of her ability. Were I given more to diplomacy, I might have even been able to resolve these latest troubles without the use of the axe. But there was the question of betrayal, you see? Hard to forgive. So, it had all been decided by the flip of a twenty-pence piece. Heads she lives. Tails she gets hacked to bits. Odd, you might say – the flipping, not the hacking (although perhaps you wouldn’t see the hacking as particularly normal) – but in Thailand, one did not toss a coin of the realm for fear that the regent might be insulted should it land face down. The Queen of England, on the other hand, had survived far worse indignities so it was her tail that had condemned my poor woman to the fate of the blade.

And so she lies, the victim, here and there. A foot hither. An elbow thither. Like a kit – an IKEA human being. It’s fascinating to look around and visualize how these parts had once fitted together so neatly. Now look at her. And look at me, all blood-spattered and sweaty. I wish I had the type of cell phone that took pictures. But what an inspiration this has been. Job done, I simply have to transcribe this recorded message to myself, made whilst the events are still fresh in my mind. While the blood is still crusted on my hands.

First, the process. Consider this a ‘how to’ for beginners. The waterproof groundsheet can never be too large. Six litres of blood spreads a long way. Two layers of black plastic garbage bags upright in a bin for those butcher shop parts one might feed to one’s pigs. And then the cutting order:

A.            The vertebrae of the neck to bleed her out.

B.            Arms and legs. (Sockets put up surprisingly little resistance to a sharp axe. I’m astounded how crime writers make dismemberment seem so labour-intensive).

C.            The legs were a little too long for the box so a couple of swift hacks to the backs of the kneecaps.

D.            The trunk was surprisingly broad so I had a mind to slice it down the middle by chopping through the sternum then down through the ribcage. I’d imagined I might invert one side and stack them, one inside the other like swimming pool chaise-longues. But, once separated, they were uncooperative. So I ended up forming four parts by hacking across the lower trunk below the ribcage. That was a workout, I tell you.

E.            The other slicing and dicing I have to confess was just for the fascination of it.

To be honest it’s a damned fine feeling. There was something sexual about it. Wickedly perverted. There’s no doubt I shall do it again. We’ll see how cleanly I get away with this one. The average policeman down here has the IQ of a sponge but I made mistakes. The most prominent was the connection between us. I’m an obvious suspect. And there’s motive. They wouldn’t have to dig too deep to find that. But I do have one or two things going for me. There’s the fact that I’m a foreigner. A better class of foreigner than the desperate labourers from the battered countries to the north, but still an outsider. As such I can be visible and invisible at the same time. I stand out but the Thais never delve too deeply into my business. They would look for a murderer amongst their own before accusing me. Then there’s the fact that there is no crime without a body. She’ll fit nicely in the polystyrene ice chest now, and off she goes. They’ll never find her. She had no living relatives. Nobody misses a missing person in this country.

Project proposal:

My next will be more carefully thought out. A friendship. An alibi. A glass of red with a fast dissolving opiate tranquillizer they developed up in the heroin labs across the border. And here she’ll be in this perfect windowless concrete room. No sounds. No escape. The type of room the predictable authors write about where all the serial killers and child abductors take their victims. Where the screams are muffled. And like those predictable authors I shall let my next victim come around to plead and cry for mercy. Yes, the next one will be better. And the next. And the next.

C.C.

CHAPTER ONE

THE LIP AND EYE REMOVER
(brand name on bottle of make-up removal cream)

Email to Clint Eastwood

Dear Clint,

It’s Jimm here, your Thai friend down on the Gulf of Siam. Merry Christmas to you and your family. It’s been a while since I wrote. I hope you are well. My sister (aka brother) Sissi and I noticed that you recently fired your personal assistant, Liced. We hope it had nothing to do with us hacking into her email account and accessing private information about Malpaso Productions. Liced was a victim in all this and was virtually blackmailed into helping us. I hope you can forgive her and consider rehiring her. As we now have nobody ‘on the inside’ 🙂 , I’m sending this package to your private post office box. I promise this is the last confidential information we will take advantage of. The enclosed DVD contains recorded footage of our very exciting pursuit of Burmese slaves on the Gulf of Thailand. As a live internet feed we attracted 1.3 million viewers for the event. Sissi and I are certain every one of them would gladly fork out fifteen dollars a ticket and watch it as a cinematic experience, especially if Natalie Portman played me. But I bow to you on casting decisions on this one. I’ve taken the liberty of wrapping the DVD in my screenplay adaptation of the events.

Clint, I’m sure you’ll recall that this is the fourth screenplay I’ve sent you, each one more thrilling than the last. Although I haven’t heard back from you personally (not complaining. Old age is catching up with all of us) we did intercept a message from one of your editorial reviewers that referred to serious doubts about the quality of characterization in our second manuscript. Firstly, it was heartening to know you bothered to have our work assessed internally. But we feel a need to address this issue, especially as the characters in the second screenplay are my family members. We considered the comments to be unfairly cruel and I would like to take your editor to task.

Our mother, Mair, is perhaps starting to feel the teeth of dementia nibbling at her heels, but that doesn’t make her ‘nutty as a fruitcake’ as your reviewer described her. She has long coherent periods which do not involve wearing odd shoes or buying second-hand Cosplay rabbit suits on eBay. (She’s only done that once. She wanted to bond with the dogs.) Between you and me, she was a ‘flower child’ for several years and did spend a good deal of time in the jungle with anti-system elements and there may have been intoxicants ingested at that time. But I’d like to see them as turning her into a more whole and mellow human rather than ‘a fruit basket’.

The older gentleman who was described as ‘unlikeable and two-dimensional’ is, in fact my Grandad Jah. I have to agree with the ‘unlikeable’ part, but Grandad, I have to strongly protest, is not lacking a dimension. At the very most, he may be short a sense or two. But his absence of humour and social etiquette is more than made up for by his innate skill as an investigator. One would imagine that forty years spent in the Thai Police Force, where the focus is on amassing great wealth, rather than putting oneself in harm’s way, might erase a man’s policing instincts. But Grandad Jah has uncanny abilities and is as honest as the day is long (which explains why he’s still penniless).

This brings me to my brother, Arnon, known affectionately as Arny, after his hero Arnold Schwarzenegger. Had we not followed our mother to the northernmost southern province in Thailand for reasons that I’ve only recently come to understand, he would undoubtedly have been this year’s Mr Chiang Mai Body Beautiful. So, the comment, ‘This character has no personality, no abilities and absolutely no purpose for being in the story’, is a bit like complaining that Moby Dick didn’t have much of a speaking part. Everything revolves around Arny. He’s the sounding board for my stories and, even though he wouldn’t harm a fly, he is my protector. In the last screenplay you’ll notice that he takes on a boatload of pirates all by himself. I may have exaggerated the number of opponents he faced and the injuries he inflicted, but he did make a good account of himself in front of his fiancée.

The ‘Impossible Hermaphrodite Queen’, is my ‘sister’, Sissi, who was neither born with conflicting organs, nor crowned. If your reviewer had bothered to read the character sheet, he or she would know this. I feel he or she was just being smart in an attempt to impress you. I’m sure you have a lot of people sucking up to you. Sissi is transgender and has a medical certificate to prove it. With reference to her computer skills, the Malpaso threat to ‘chase you down and run you out of business’, was very dramatic but I’m sure you realize she’s un-chasable and un-runoutable. Our hacking has, you’ll have to agree, been very friendly and, even though your accounts were wide open to access and abuse, we have not robbed you blind. And I’m sure that when we’re sitting down at the negotiating table discussing the finer details of our first movie deal, we’ll all look back at these days and laugh.

Which brings me to me, Jimm Juree. I should perhaps have been the most offended and hurt by your reviewer’s comments but I am traditionally a punchbag for abuse. As I am only 34 and have never been in domestic service, I was forced to look up some other meaning for ‘old maid’. Once found, I am obliged to protest most strongly.

I was married and had conjugal moments with my husband during our three-point-seven years of marriage. At least once a month, if I remember rightly. Not a record, I agree, but enough to disqualify me from being ‘a woman who has not formed a human pair bond by the time she is approaching or has reached menopause and the end of her reproductive lifespan’. (Wikipedia.) My husband had been desperate to appear married and I was desperate to be asked, which may not make us a pair bond but it’s a precedent. I have a good ten years of premenopausal hunting left in me.

I also take objection to the expression ‘a very unlikely Thai female character’. If by this he means I don’t work in a rice paddy or a go-go bar, am not listed on any internet dating sites and do not walk with tiny steps nor speak demurely when in male company, then, fair enough, he’s got me. But, in fact, we Thai gals were given admittance to the twenty-first century. We’re allowed to chat online and study overseas and speak foreign languages. Would you believe it? We can even run companies and stand for parliament. No, Clint, my hero, I don’t believe for a second that you want movie scripts full of stereotypes and I’m sure you sent that confidential internal memo to the trash where it belonged.

Well, hey. You probably can’t wait to get your teeth into the enclosed DVD and manuscript, so I’ll stop here. As Sissi and I are sure the North American postal service is  all  but  redundant  since  the  advent  of  emails,  we decided to increase the odds of you receiving this package by making thirty-seven copies which we are sending to your work colleagues, some senior shareholders of the company, friends and family. In each one we have included a small plant pot mat hand-embroidered by Hmong hill-tribe women in the north. As I say, when we’re all raking in the dollars from our first movie collaboration, you’ll stop seeing this as harassment and appreciate the charming side of it. Somewhere on the director’s voice-over on the DVD you’ll mention how annoyed you were at first but that those goddamned crazy Thais had one hell of a product.

Have a great Christmas and may Santa bring you yet another Oscar.

Love, Jimm and Sissi

(Postal address withheld but you have our email)

CHAPTER TWO

PLEASE LEAVE YOUR VALUES AT THE FRONT DESK
(country hotel)

Ours had become a life of shoulds. My mother, Mair, should have been on duty at the inconvenience store at our family resort. Instead, she was off painting desks at her school for the children of Burmese day labourers. Arny should have been cleaning all the junk off the beach in the unlikely occurrence we’d have any guests, but he was off spotting weights for his fifty-eight-yearold bodybuilding fiancée, Gaew. Grandad Jah should have . . . well, he didn’t have any role or function in the running of the Gulf Bay Lovely Resort and Restaurant, so he was sitting by the roadside watching traffic, of which there was precious little.

That just left me – who should be just about anywhere else – in charge of five bungalows, four thatched outdoor tables, a half-submerged latrine block and two cows that had wandered along the beach one day, taken a fancy to our young palms, and stayed. Oh, and there were three dogs that I tend to forget because, despite what they think, I’m not a dog person. They are, in order of rescue, Gogo of the non-functioning intestines, Sticky, second name Rice, and our latest recruit, Little Beer, riddled with mange and unlikely ever to get a date. We used to have a rescue monkey as well but we sent her to Phuket for trauma rehab. All these were the result of Mair’s dual conditions of early Alzheimer’s and philanthropy. This was a combination which incorporated the search and recover mission for our long-lost father. Look, in fact I do have a story to tell here; a blood-and-guts tale of betrayal, sex and international intrigue, so don’t let me get sidetracked talking about Captain Kow. But, just briefly, when we first arrived here in the south, Captain Kow was a local celebrity; a gap-toothed, all-knowing, squid-scented old guy with nice eyes. When we found out he was the father who’d deserted us all when I was three, at least one thing made sense. Mair had dragged us down here for a reason. There was method in her madness. We don’t know how she discovered Kow’s whereabouts, but she was single-minded in his pursuit. That, in a Mills and Boone kind of way, I could admire. She gave up all she had, including half her mind, to move her family to the place where her one love had settled. It would have made a good movie, but not one I’d want to be in.

Since his unmasking by my transgender sister, Sissi, the good captain had vanished again. We hadn’t had a chance to ask him about our abandonment or the semi-orphanic years we’d spent rattling around in Chiang Mai with humourless Grandad Jah as the nearest thing we had to a father figure. Kow had a lot to answer for, so I could understand his disappearance. I inherited his avoidance of culpability. All right. That’s all I have to say on the subject for now. As a potential award-winning crime reporter in my days at the Chiang Mai Mail, I am only too aware that distracting side-shows can be really annoying for a reader who just wants to get down to the murder. So, here’s the lead-in.

To compensate for the fact we weren’t making any money at all at the resort, I was working two outside jobs. By far the best-paying was my role as an English language doctor. During her brief visit to Maprao, Sissi had introduced me to the dongle, which turned my notebook into a loaded weapon. Suddenly I could be online without queuing for hours at the Pak Nam internet café. I couldn’t afford to pay the cell-phone bills but Sissi had done something illegal to the dtac databank that automatically topped me up. I’d spent a lot of my time on the road during my working days up north and was constantly frustrated by the fact that the sign makers assumed they could translate Thai into English merely with the use of a dictionary. This led to sentences such as DO NOT USE ELEVATOR WHILE CAUSING FIRE. So I had the brilliant idea of offering my services to  anyone who  wanted their  signs translated accurately. Sissi blitzed me all over the internet and before I knew it I was getting regular work. Local councils had me writing their signs to avoid embarrassments, such as my favourite detour sign: EVERYONE GETS OFF HERE. Hotels had me improve on warnings like DO NOT DRIVE IN THE POOL AS WATER NOT SO DEEP. Ironically, my English doctoring practice was keeping us all alive. The Chumphon Department of Highways had sent me a list of road signs to correct. I was a whizz at transcription. It was me who convinced the provincial authorities to rewrite their Chum Porn signs. I had struck gold.

My other ‘job’ was at the Chumphon News. With the advent of desktop publishing and a wealth of smart unemployed journalism graduates, it was as if almost any town with a population over fifteen boasted its own newspaper. The News operated out of a house beside a busy main road. Its two regular contributors had flu, so, one day, the editor asked me if I might interview a famous international writer for them. As famous writers were notoriously thin on the ground in Chumphon, I accepted with bells on. I had visions of Dan Brown on a rock-climbing vacation in Krabi, me flown business class to Bangkok for dinner with Stephen King, a weekend on Kathy Reichs’ yacht off Samui. But I did not have visions of Kor Kao, a ten-minute bicycle ride down the bay from our resort. I was suspicious.

‘What’s his name?’ I asked. ‘Conrad Coralbank,’ he said.

It sounded like a coastal preservation programme. I could have feigned knowledge to impress the editor but instead I asked, ‘And he’s famous?’

‘Absolutely,’ he said. He was a very literary man, but he needed to open the Word information sheet he’d put together before he could tell me what the famous author had written.

‘He’s won stuff,’ he said. ‘Awards and that. He writes –’ he squinted as he read the English – ‘mystery novels set in Laos.’

Laos. Great. My ardour softened to a mushy paste of uninterest. Nobody would ever become famous by writing about a place that 98.3 per cent of American high school students couldn’t locate on an atlas. Not even one with the country names written on it and an index. Admittedly, 34 per cent of that sample couldn’t find Canada either. Laos – and I don’t want to sound racist here – is easily the most boring place on the planet. I’d been there several times on stories and it’s a scientific fact that clocks move slower there. One second in Laos is the equivalent of twelve minutes over here. Getting something done was like wading waist-deep through rice porridge. This was clearly going to be one of those pump-him-up-and-make-him-look-more-interesting-than-he-actually-is pieces. Fluff. But it was work. If I did a good job they might start giving me assignments. Plus there was the bonus that I’d get to speak English. My latent second language only ever got a real run-out with Sissi in our long bilingual phone conversations. We prided ourselves on our skill at speaking English in foreign accents. I did a good Brazilian. She had Eastern Europe down pat. It didn’t, however, improve the actual language.

That was another good point. It would be a boon to find a down-and-out Westerner within cycling distance who could help me with my conversation skills. He’d probably be an alcoholic with skin allergies, grateful that a voluptuously curvy young Thai girl should stop by occasionally for a chat. I’d bring him a bottle of Mekhong whisky, watch his liver-polka-dotted hands shake as he poured it neat into his cracked Amazing Thailand mug and partake of a grateful swig. Of course I’d take the mace. Western writers in Thailand drew most of their inspiration from bars. He’d assume I was as loose as all the girlies in farang novels. That’s the problem, you see? When you have a government full of dirty old men who have more sex with professionals than with their own wives it’s very difficult to dismantle a sex industry that for many years was the country’s only drawing card. The US military left two-thirds of its combat pay in Pattaya. Word got around, and soon every Tom, Dick and Helmut was on a charter flight to Bangkok. A lot of powerful people here got where they are today on the back of the male libido. You see why I could never write fiction? I get too tied down with issues. Nobody wants to read all this, so . . . Conrad Coralbank. The editor allowed me to sit and look him up online. His computer was dial-up. The connection was such that I drifted into a daydream where I was a Neanderthal staring at a rectangular block of stone, occasionally hammering it with my club. Then the Wikipedia page arrived. Here’s what didn’t surprise me. The photo was of a fresh-faced, big-teethed, blueeyed man – late forties according to the caption – with fashionably long hair. They do that – authors. They dig out a picture from thirty years before that they kept because, although it didn’t actually look like them, it looked the way they’d willed themselves to look at the time. They send it to their publisher who airbrushes out the pimples and there it is: the jacket photo.

I was however thrown by the number of books he’d supposedly written and the awards he’d purportedly been nominated for, and by the fact he was apparently married and enjoyed cycling, kayaking, and walking the dogs on the beach. None of that sounded particularly down-and-out to me. But, hey, anyone can write themselves a Wikipedia page and, if nobody who knows any better ever looks at it, nobody will edit out your lies. The net was Club Med for the scammer. So I wasn’t exactly shaken by this introduction, just a little stirred. And to stir me even more, Conrad had photos.

Conrad on the beach with his two Rottweilers. Conrad in the garden with his beautiful Thai wife, both smiling with seedlings in their hands. Conrad about to set off on a bicycle rally with the Pak Nam Mountain Bikers’ Club. And in every photo he was that same airbrushed young man from the jacket photo. There was one pensive black and white picture where he leaned over his keyboard in search of adjectives, and you could see his wrinkles. But they weren’t deep, merely the friendly parallel arcs of an artist’s pencil.

I zoomed in to his face until his forehead and chin no longer fitted on the screen. I’d lived here a year. Spent a lot of time by the roadside praying some gypsy family might steal me away. Why had I never seen Conrad Coralbank? Why had I never seen his tall, beautiful wife? With La Mae twenty kilometres south, and Lang Suan eighteen kilometres west, Pak Nam was his nearest metropolis. He’d have to pass our resort to get there. I’d spent hours in the Pak Nam 7-Eleven, marvelling at the vast choice of potato chips, mixing myself various flavours of ice gunk, doing impersonations for the CCTV camera. Why had we never bumped into each other? Tesco Lotus? The Saturday market? Pak Nam Hospital? The two restaurants with menus? Passing on bicycles, sweaty from the climb over the Lang Suan river bridge? It seemed almost impossible not to have seen him. Good. A mystery.


Excerpted from The Axe Factor by Colin Cotterill. Copyright © 2013 by Colin Cotterill.
First published in Great Britain in 2013 by Quercus Editions, 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.

100 Things You Will Never Do by Daniel Smith – Extract

100 Things You Will Never Do

No. 6: Drink a bottle of 1787 Chateau Lafite

In 1985, a bottle of 1787 Chateau Lafite was sold at auction by Christies for a cool $160,000, making it the most expensive standard bottle of wine in history. If you pride yourself on knowing your sauvignon blanc from your shiraz, you might lust after a bottle of this choice vintage – but you probably wouldn’t want to drink it.

The record-breaking bottle was bought by Christopher Forbes, a son of the famous Forbes magazine dynasty. As a wine collector, he was particularly drawn to the bottle because it was etched with the three letters ‘Th.J’. This, it was reported, was proof that the wine came from the collection of the USA’s third President and one of its founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson served a stint as ambassador to France and took the opportunity to develop his taste for fine wine. And they don’t come any finer than those from the vineyards of Château Lafite, near the village of Paulliac in the Médoc region north-west of Bordeaux. The Chateau made its name in the early 18th century thanks to the wine-making prowess of its owner, Nicolas-Alexandre, the marquis de Ségur, and his shrewd stroke of marketing genius in introducing his wines to the French royal court. Since the 19th century it has been owned by the powerful Rothschild family, and today it is often known as Chateau Lafite Rothschild.

Even the greatest vineyards have their ups and downs, of course, but the glorious summer of 1787 produced a vintage that was widely acknowledged, as one for the ages. However, Bordeaux wines have a drinkable life span of no more than 50 years. Today, the contents of this once-glorious 1787 Lafite would, almost certainly, taste about as good as table vinegar. But to find out for certain, you’ll need the permission of the Forbes Collection to test it – and it seems unlikely that they would say yes.

Top end bottles of wine are generally sold at auction, where bidders get caught up in the heat of battle – Forbes clearly won on the day, but there must have been an underbidder willing to $150,000. Unsurprisingly, 1787 Lafites seldom come on to the market. Nonetheless, other bottles of the vintage have since been sold on the internet for less than the 1985 auction price – though they lack the presidential link. So if you have $120,000 burning a hole in your pocket, you why not treat yourself to a bottle and sprinkle it over your fish and chips?

No. 36: Practise telekinesis

Telekinesis – a term coined by Russian author Alexander Aksakov in 1890 – is the alleged ability to harness the power of the human mind to move distant objects. There’s precious little scientific proof that it exists, but that has not stopped the world’s superpowers investigating. So how could it be done?

Telekinesis is a branch of psychokinesis, the ability to influence the physical world with the power of the mind alone. In a 2006 US survey, around 30 per cent of respondents indicated they believed the idea to be plausible – but there has never been a single controlled laboratory experiments to prove it. Despite this, it’s widely acknowledged that during the Cold War, both US and Soviet governments were actively involved in telekinetic and psychokinetic research. The Americans, for instance, reputedly ran Project Jedi, which aimed to create a breed of ‘super-soldier’ able to kill by thought alone.

This project is detailed in the book and film The Men who Stare at Goats – a title that refers to a series of experiments at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in which potential psychics tried to kill goats simply by focussing their thoughts. Uri Geller, probably the world’s most famous claimant of psychokinetic abilities, says that he was asked to take part, but as an animal-lover, he declined and stuck to bending spoons instead.

Most advocates of telekinesis suggest that to develop your own abilities, you must have faith in your potential. The required skills, they say, take a long time to perfect. Start by meditating, relaxing yourself entirely and clearing your mind. Practise breathing exercises and consider chanting mantras. Then gradually begin to build up periods of intense concentration. (Until, say, you can focus on a particular thought or emotion to the exclusion of everything else for fifteen minutes at a time.)

Do not start out with big ambitions – even believers would say it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be able to move stationary objects at once. Instead, try to prolong the momentum of an already moving object, such as a spinning coin.

Progress to trying to move small objects, such as matchsticks sealed off from air currents under a bell jar. If you show signs of success, be careful who you tell about your newfound talent – do you really want to answer the door one day to a soldier or CIA operative with a goat tucked under their arm.

No. 46: Write a hit record

Despite the changing landscape of the music industry, there is still nothing quite like having a Number One record to your name. It might be tricky to keep track of the many different charts – physical sales, air play, digital downloads and so on – but in the end it’s all about having a song that people want to listen to.

Writing songs is a bit like kissing frogs in search of a prince. You’ll probably have to write a lot of them before you hit upon the one. For instance, Guy Chambers, Robbie William’s former writing partner and one of today’s most successful hitmakers, reportedly scores one hit for every 47 songs he writes. And songs don’t write themselves, so get on with it – a bit of daydreaming is fine, but you need to get all those words and tunes that are in your head down on paper.

Having a Number One hit is a delicate balance of quality song-writing, great performance, clever marketing and great good luck. Immerse yourself in music. Seek out different styles from different eras. Educate yourself in the theory of song-writing – you don’t have to spend years at a salon, but it helps to have a basic understanding of melody, harmony and rhythm. Familiarize yourself with basic song structures. Don’t be constricted by theory, but use it to free your creativity. According to Billboard Magazine, the average length of a hit song is 4.26 minutes, with a tempo between 117 and 122 bpm. For your best statistical chance of a hit, write in the key of C and stick to major keys.

If you struggle with lyrics, get a partner to look after that side of things – an arrangement that worked out nicely for Elton John and Bernie Taupin.

When you have a song that you think might work, play it to people. If they don’t leave whistling it, perhaps it’s not your hit. However be sure to copyright your song and don’t sell the rights too cheaply or without royalties. Decide if you want to link up with a major record label or not. A multinational will always have the resources and know-how to reach places that you as an individual might not, but increasingly musicians are able to strike out on their own or on smaller labels. Once upon a time, a record’s success depended on radio airplay – if the DJs were on your side, the chances of your song succeeding were good. These days, thanks to the internet, there are more methods than ever of garnering attention, and a wily songwriter will make use of all of them.

No. 59: Establish your own nation

What makes a country a country? It’s a question that’s more vexed than you might imagine. Two-thirds of countries, for instance, observe the sovereignty of Palestine, yet it is not recognized by many others. So if you want to set up a state of your own, what’s the best way of getting people to accept your little corner of the world as a sovereign nation in its own right?

Eccentric musical genius Frank Zappa claimed the qualifications for statehood were simple: ‘You can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline – it helps if you have some kind of football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer.’ Zappa, however, famously called his daughter Moon Unit, so he may not be the most reliable font of wisdom. A more reliable source of information might be the 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States. Though the Convention does not have the force of international law, it does represent a widely-held set of standards. To be a state, you need at the very least: (a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) a government; and (d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.

Assuming you’re not keen on staging an invasion of someone else’s country and lack the finances to buy one, there are a couple of options when it comes to territory. The simplest is to declare your own property independent, but the chances are that no one will take you very seriously since your land still falls within another nation’s territory. Alternatively, look to international waters – if you can find an unclaimed island 12 nautical miles beyond any other nation’s territorial limit (and 200 nautical miles from any major economic zones, just to be careful), you could be in business.

As head of state, you’ll probably want to create a constitution, along with a flag, national anthem and currency. Award yourself a decent title too – North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il enjoyed monikers such as ‘Highest Incarnation of the Revolutionary Comradely Love’, ‘Great Sun of The Nation’ and the short but elegant ‘Brilliant Leader’.

Finally, how about joining the UN? Application requires only a fairly standard letter, and to qualify as a member you’ll have to promise to uphold UN principals. Unfortunately you’ll also need two-thirds support from the General Assembly, and backing from the permanent members of the Security Council – that’s where things could get difficult.

No. 84: Saw someone in half

Legend has it that this classic illusion was first performed by a magician named Torrini in 1809 for the delight of Pope Pius VII. Fortunately, no humans need be injured in the making of this dazzling spectacle. A foot model who is willing to maintain their anonymity, however, may come in handy…

Nice though the story is, there is sadly no contemporary evidence for the tale of Torrini performing his trick for dubious papal pleasure. The first properly documented performance took place at St George’s Hall in London as recently as 1920, when one P. T. Selbit entertained an invited audience by locking his assistant in a large wooden case. The coffin-like cabinet was then lifted on to a set of trestles, with Selbit seemingly sawing through the assistant’s midriff, before pulling the sections of the box apart. The assistant was then released from the box and, to everyone’s delight, was shown to be unharmed.

The next great development came when an American magician called Horace Goldin worked out in 1921 how to keep the assistant’s head and feet visible for the duration. Blessed with a well-developed business brain, Goldin secured a patent for his technology and effectively blocked other illusionists from practising the trick in the USA for several years. But unfortunately for him, by applying for the patent he necessarily put his technology into the public domain, allowing anyone interested enough to read all about it.

In subsequent decades, the trick has been performed in ever slicker and more impressive forms, but you can still turn heads (and perhaps a few stomachs) with the Goldin method:

Most importantly, you need a pair of assistants. Tradition says that they should be pretty, female and quite scantily clad (though in this age of equal opportunities, there’s no reason not to dissect men if you so choose). You’ll also need a specially designed wooden cabinet, and a deeper-than-normal table with a hollowed-out top. At the mid-point of the box, there needs to be a footrest that stops about half way down the cabinet’s depth. The bottom half of the cabinet has a discreet trap door that exactly aligns with a similar trapdoor in the top of the table, plus two holes from which the feet appear. The top half of the cabinet has a hole big enough so that a head may stick out of it.

Before your audience arrives, one of your assistants (let’s assume you’re a traditionalist, and call her Assistant Two) needs to secrete herself in the hollowed out table top.

With the audience in place and yearning to be amazed, introduce Assistant One. Over-the-top hand gestures and other signs of flamboyance are not essential but they always go down well and can help distract the audience from thinking too much about what else is going on.

Now open the sturdy locks on the lid of the cabinet and swing it open, allowing Assistant One to slip gracefully into the cabinet.

Now for the ‘magic’. As Assistant One takes up position, spin the table so that the audience can see her head at one end and feet at the other. While the feet end is out of sight for the audience, Assistant One contorts herself so that her own feet are nestling on the footrest, while Assistant Two pokes her feet through the trap doors and puts them through the holes at the bottom of the cabinet (giving the toes a flamboyant wiggle for good measure as they come back into the audience’s view).

Using whatever sawing device you prefer, cut through the middle of the cabinet, just along from the underside of the footrest. You’re effectively cutting through thin air inside the cabinet but Assistant One might like to crank up the tension by giving a blood-curdling scream or two. Now insert a couple of metal plates to hide the cabinet’s interior from view – your audience should believe this is to protect them from the terrible, bloody mess held therein. Finally, pull the top half of the cabinet away from the bottom, and enjoy the gasps of the enraptured crowd.

After milking the applause for as long as you feel comfortable, put the two halves of the cabinet back together again. Remove the metal plates and give the cabinet a tap so that Assistant Two knows she should hide her feet back in the table top. Assistant One can now emerge completely unscathed from the cabinet to yet more applause and adulation.


Excerpted from 100 Things You Will Never Do by Daniel Smith. Copyright © 2013 by Daniel Smith.
First published in 2013 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.

The Scarlet Tides by David Hair – Extract

The Scarlet Tides

Prologue

The Vexations of Emperor Constant (Part Two)

The Imperial Dynasty

The Blessed Three Hundred, though revelling in their godlike powers and fresh from destroying a Rimoni legion, were cast into confusion by the death of their charismatic spiritual guide Johan ‘Corineus’ Corin. His murder at the hands of his sister, Corinea, had horrified his followers, and left them with an immediate problem: who would succeed the man who had bequeathed them the gnosis?

But Ganitius, Corineus’ loyal ‘fixer’, and Baramitius, whose potions had opened the gateway to the gnosis, acted quickly to ensure the future of the group. Uniting behind the nobleman Mikal Sertain, they established a new leadership that saw Sertain anointed Corineus’ successor, the successful destruction of the bewildered Rimoni armies, and the instalment of the Sacrecour dynasty that still rules Pallas and the empire today.

Why Sertain? Because his family were well-moneyed.
Ordo Costruo Collegiate, Pontus

Pallas, Rondelmar
Summer 927
1 Year until the Moontide

One year until the Moontide. It seemed like no time at all.

Gurvon Gyle studied the faces about him anew as they settled back into their seats. Over the last hour, the atmosphere of the room had changed. His plan for the conquest of Javon had been agreed, but that was just the first step. The rest of this meeting would be more contentious, and test the ability of this group of people to work together. He smoothed the sleeve of his rough dun-coloured shirt, wondering if his plans for Javon would go as intended.

When does anything ever go as planned?

To his left, fellow Noroman Belonius Vult, Governor of Norostein, was riffling through his notes as he prepared to speak again. He was clad in the finest cloth, of silver and blue. His noble visage spoke of wisdom and secret knowledge, like some legendary guide to the future; appropriate, Gyle thought, as their plans were set to shape the world for years to come. Five others shared the meeting chamber deep within the Imperial Court in Pallas: the four men and one woman were all Rondian, and amongst the most powerful people in the known world.

It was only natural to look first at the emperor. He was a young man still. Though he ruled the greatest empire in history, the crown did not weigh easily upon his brow and he looked shrunken in his glittering robes. He was sour-faced, with flawless pale skin and wispy facial hair, and his nose twitched constantly as he looked about him, as if he imagined himself surrounded by enemies. As well he might: he had ascended after the premature death of his father and the incarceration of his elder sister. Intrigue festered in his court.

The emperor’s nervous eyes were drawn most often to the woman at his right hand: his mother. Mater-Imperia Lucia Fasterius- Sacrecour did not look frightening, but it was her machinations that had brought her favourite – and most pliable – child to the throne of Rondelmar. With a serene face and simple taste in clothing, she was outwardly the picture of a devout and matronly woman. Yesterday, in a vast ceremony before the massed populace of Pallas, she had been made a Living Saint, but no one then had seen any sign of her chilling and callous intellect. Gyle had witnessed enough evidence of her ruthlessness to know that her approval alone would see the second part of the plan accepted.

And we will need her favour even more urgently if anything goes wrong.

The man who had invested Lucia as a saint, Arch-Prelate Wurther, sat opposite Gyle, swirling his wine and looking about contentedly. He met Gyle’s eyes and smiled amiably. The prelate looked harmless

enough, like a parish priest promoted past his capability, but he was a wily old hog. The Church of Kore was no place for fools.

Next to the prelate, the Imperial Treasurer Calan Dubrayle was leaning back in his chair, eyes unfocused; mentally counting money, perhaps. He was a slim, dapper man with careful eyes. He’d been appointed Treasurer following the ascension of the emperor; his analytical mind and head for the gold that flowed through the coffers of Urte’s mightiest state made him perfect for the job.

Gyle had no love for either of the two men talking in the corner. When his homeland had revolted against the empire eighteen years ago, he and Belonius Vult had been part of that rebellion. Kaltus Korion and Tomas Betillon had been the generals who’d eventually crushed the uprising – and now here they all were, part of a fresh conspiracy, the Noros Revolt forgotten. Except it wasn’t, not really. You didn’t forget things like that, no matter how many years had passed.

Kaltus Korion looked like a hero, and was, to the man on the street. His pale hair was swept back from a strong face, framing steely eyes and a jutting jaw. His combative manner only heightened the heroic illusion. The man with him – burly, uncouth Tomas Betillon – swilled wine as he tapped Korion on the chest, making some point.

Neither will like the next part of the plan, Gyle thought.

He rubbed his thumb and forefinger together, invoked his gnosis and bled a little heat into his red wine to combat the chill in the room. All eyes went to him as he did it: everyone else was a pure- blood mage and highly sensitive to any use of the gnosis. He opened his hand palm-up, to indicate that what he’d done was no threat.

Mater-Imperia Lucia inclined her head to him gracefully, then called to the two military men, ‘Kaltus, Tomas . . . I believe Master Vult is ready. We await your attention.’

Korion and Betillon stalked back to their seats. Korion’s low grumbling quieted only when Lucia narrowed her eyes. The Living Saint glanced down at her papers, then around the table. ‘Gentlemen, in twelve months the Third Crusade begins, giving us the chance to achieve certain of our objectives. Among them, the destruction of

the merchant–magi cabal; the death of Duke Echor of Argundy – the only real rival to my son; the destruction of the Ordo Costruo and Antonin Meiros; the plunder of northern Antiopia and subsequent enrichment of our treasury, and the recapture of Javon. Magister Vult and Magister Gyle have invested much time and thought and we’ve already covered the Javon problem.’ She turned to the two Noromen. ‘That aspect of your plans already has our approval.’ She looked at Vult. ‘So, with my son’s permission, Governor, please continue.’

The emperor inclined his head distractedly, not that anyone really noticed.

Belonius stood and thanked her and then began, his clear voice easily filling the room, ‘Your Majesties, gentlemen. According to our plans, Javon will be paralysed and unable to support the shihad by the time the Moontide arrives and the Leviathan Bridge rises from the sea, thus securing the northern flank – and our supply lines – for the armies of the Crusade. This leaves us free to turn our attention to other things, namely the destruction of the enemies of the empire. As Mater-Imperia Lucia has outlined, many of those are internal enemies. You’ve all seen the documents Gurvon provided before the meeting. They prove not only that Duke Echor Borodium, the emperor’s own uncle – and outwardly a strong supporter – has been in contact with the emperor’s disgraced sister Natia, but that he has made approaches to the governors and domestic rulers of all of the empire’s vassal-states on her behalf, canvassing their support. These are treasonous acts worthy of death. But the fact remains that Argundy is the second-largest kingdom in the empire. When Echor’s brother conspired with the emperor’s sister and was executed, Echor was not in a position then to prevent that, or take the field in her name, but his resentment remains strong, and now he is in control of Argundy—’

‘We should have killed him when we had the chance,’ the emperor grumbled, pulling a face. ‘When he was kneeling before me, kissing my signet and pleading for his brother’s life, I should have seized an axe: chop chop!’ He sniggered at the mental image.

Gyle saw Lucia’s eyes tighten just a little: impatience, tempered

with a mother’s indulgence. ‘Darling, you remember that was impossible,’ she chided him gently. ‘Echor has married into the Argundian kings. Beheading him would have guaranteed revolt at an inopportune moment. Buying him off bought us time to deal with him. That time is now.’

Constant’s nostrils flared at her tone, but he ducked his head and fell silent.

Belonius breezed past the interruption. ‘To weaken Echor’s standing, we need to lure his vassal-state allies to destruction. We need them to join the Crusade. The Second Crusade yielded inadequate plunder and all but destroyed trade. The vassal-states claimed they had emptied their treasuries to fund it and got nothing back, and because of that, they would not support any more Crusades in the future.’

Betillon scowled contemptuously. ‘If they’d committed more troops, they might have—’

Unexpectedly, Calan Dubrayle broke in. ‘No, actually, Magister Vult is quite right: the Second Crusade was a waste of money. The Sultan of Kesh is not stupid. In the preceding years he and anyone with wealth shipped their gold and riches eastwards, far from our reach. They also poisoned waterholes and burned their own crops for hundreds of miles inland. We spent millions marching our armies all the way to Istabad and recovered – what, a third of our outlay? By the time I’d taken the emperor’s share and the Church’s, the vassal-states were left with nothing.’

You might have added another group, Treasurer: the noble magi who robbed their soldiers to enhance their own coffers. They took as much as the Imperial Treasury and more.

‘You say that as if it were a bad thing,’ Betillon chuckled. ‘Keeping the provinces weak is half the battle.’

‘Maybe,’ Dubrayle noted, ‘but it doesn’t leave much enthusiasm for more Crusades.’

Vult coughed to regain the floor, and went on, ‘Argundy, Bricia, Noros, Estellayne and Hollenia have all said they will not join this Crusade.’

‘Noros,’ Korion snarled, jabbing a finger at Vult. ‘If your people don’t join the Crusade in their thousands, I’ll give them another crackdown that will make Knebb look like a holiday.’

Betillon laughed harshly: he’d been the Rondian general to order the slaughter at Knebb during the Revolt. He was still known as ‘The Butcher of Knebb’.

Gyle still remembered entering the smoking ruins of the town and seeing the carnage for the first time. Something inside him had changed forever that day. For now, he worked hard to keep his expression carefully blank.

‘I will demand their participation,’ whined Emperor Constant. ‘They’re my subjects.’

‘Darling,’ Lucia chimed in, smiling sweetly, ‘even dogs have to be fed or they become unmanageable.’

‘Our Beloved Mater-Imperia is wisdom itself,’ Vult put in quickly. ‘The Crusade needs the manpower of the vassal-states. Every province of the empire must participate.’

‘Why?’ Korion  demanded.  ‘Rondelmar must  control  the  action in Antiopia when the time comes, and that means dominating the military. We’re only one third of the empire’s population: if every state sends every eligible soldier, we will be outnumbered. If Echor were to unite them, we would be overwhelmed.’

‘But my lord,’ Vult countered, ‘during the Second Crusade, the armies of the vassal-states were in Kesh and therefore, they were not here. They were grubbing around for loot as desperately as we were. The circumstances have changed now: they don’t want to go. If they hold back and Rondelmar sends all its troops into Antiopia for two years, who will stand up to Echor?’

‘He wouldn’t dare,’ Constant said, outraged. ‘He bowed to me! He kissed my ring!’

Kissing your arse doesn’t mean he loves you, Gyle thought.

Silence greeted the emperor’s declaration, but Gyle saw Mater- Imperia Lucia’s eyes narrow again.

‘Magister Vult,’ said Arch-Prelate Wurther, ‘you say that getting the vassal-states to commit to the Crusade is vital, but if we do that,

how will we control them? More importantly, how will we ensure that the plunder finds its way to the proper places? Your notes on this matter were frustratingly vague.’ The prelate wagged a finger admonishingly.

‘Their commitment is paramount,’ Vult replied. ‘If Echor and his allies are not in the vanguard of this Crusade, then a domestic coup while the Crusade is in progress is inevitable.’

‘Rondelmar has all the strongest magi,’ Korion countered. ‘A Pallas battle-legion is worth at least three from the provinces. They would not dare.’

‘Actually, that is not entirely true,’ Calan Dubrayle put in mildly, again taking Vult’s side, making Gyle wonder what was in it for Dubrayle. Maybe he just likes annoying Korion? ‘The most recent census revealed that more than half of all magi live outside of Rondelmar. Most of the strongest are here, it is true, but numbers matter. And the loyalty of those within is not to be taken for granted,’ he added.

Emperor Constant’s mouth fell open and his eyes went to his mother’s face as if for reassurance. ‘My people love me,’ he squeaked. ‘All of them.’

Yes, yes, they kissed your rukking ring. But some love Echor and others love your poor, tragic, imprisoned elder sister and they all wonder whether your arse on the throne really does represent the will of Kore.

‘Carry on, Magister Vult,’ Lucia instructed, silencing her son with a warning look.

‘The Treasurer is correct: a ruler must always be vigilant. Our emperor is a paragon of all the virtues; lesser men have baser morals.’ Vult made a subservient gesture to Emperor Constant, then to Lucia. ‘I therefore propose that we make a public concession, one that will ensure that we get all of the zealous manpower we could want from the vassal-states and at the same time put the heads of our enemies firmly in the noose: we offer Echor command of the Crusade.’

‘What?’ Kaltus Korion leapt to his feet, exploding with fury. ‘That isn’t in your notes! Who the Hel do you think you are? It is my right to command the Crusade!’

‘General Korion!’ Lucia’s voice cracked like a whip. ‘Sit down!’

‘But—’ Korion looked set to shout at her, and then abruptly swallowed his words. ‘Your Majesty, I apologise,’ he said, trying to calm himself. ‘But I don’t understand; I am the Supreme General of the Rondian Empire, I must lead the Crusade.’ He struck his own chest, over the heart. ‘It is my due.’

Gyle watched Korion thoughtfully.  Plunder  the  east,  return  with  all the loot, with a massive adoring army at your beck and call . . . Perhaps you’re eyeing the Sacred Throne yourself, General?

‘You’re still standing in our presence,’ Lucia reminded the general in a voice that dripped acid. ‘Sit down, Kaltus, and let us debate this like adults.’

Korion stared at her for half a second and then sat, abashed. Gyle looked at Vult. Interesting.

Emperor Constant looked puzzled. He obviously didn’t understand what was going on. Betillon looked as outraged as Korion. Dubrayle and Wurther were expressionless, which seemed exceedingly wise.

Mater-Imperia Lucia tilted her head to Vult. ‘Continue, Magister.’ Vult   took   a   breath.  ‘Thank you, Mater-Imperia,’   he said, emphasising her title as if that might deflect some of the fury that was radiating from Kaltus Korion. The two men had hated each other since the day Vult had betrayed the Noros Revolt by tending his surrender to Korion.

‘It is my command, turncoat,’ Korion told him in a low voice.

Vult flushed angrily. ‘The future of this empire is at stake. This is not a time to think of one’s personal standing. This is a time to reflect on how one can contribute to the greater good.’ His eyes focused on some imaginary point halfway between Korion and Mater- Imperia Lucia. ‘This is a time to put the wellbeing of our emperor first.’

‘Hear, hear,’ said Wurther, sipping wine with a twinkle in his eye, earning him a belligerent glare from Betillon, which troubled the Churchman not at all.

‘The common people, the merchant–magi and even many of the loyal magi spread throughout the empire do not wish to see another Crusade like the last. They were promised the world, my lords. They were told to expect plunder beyond all dreams, that the East was awash with gold. And I believed that too, as firmly as any.’

Gyle knew Vult’s financial situation. The Governor had invested heavily in the Crusades and lost.

Vult continued, ‘Argundy, Bricia and Noros are from the same stock as Rondelmar, yet they baulk. The people of Schlessen, Verelon, Estellayne, Sydia . . . they refuse involvement outright. Last time they invested men, money and stores, and they lost all but the men. They slaughtered heathens by the thousand, but what did they gain? Nothing – Pallas took it all. Why would we march again? Why?’

We? Gyle smiled to himself, then caught Lucia watching him. She raised an eyebrow but said nothing.

Vult tapped his papers. ‘Only one thing will bring the provinces into this Crusade: the belief that this time will be different. And only one thing can send that signal: the leadership of this venture being given to the man they associate with balancing the power of Pallas with that of the provinces: Duke Echor of Argundy. Appoint him, and the provinces will join. Fail to do so, and you may as well prepare to man the entire Crusade on your own.’ He didn’t say ‘if you can’, but those words hung in the air.

The room fell silent. Korion and Betillon exchanged a glance as if daring each other to protest. Constant still looked childishly confused, but the others were catching on: Lucia wants this. It will happen.

Korion stood, and Gyle watched the man swallow his pride as he addressed himself to Lucia. ‘Mater-Imperia, I apologise. This plan is wise. A  military  commission  is  nothing  when compared  with  the perpetuation of the might and majesty of the House of Sacrecour.’

No one had ever called Kaltus Korion stupid.

The same could not be said for Tomas Betillon. ‘I don’t understand,’ he grumbled. ‘Let the proclamations go out, see how many sign up first, before we commit to something we don’t need to.’

‘And be seen to back down?’ Dubrayle asked caustically. ‘I think not. An emperor states a path and does not deviate. He does not negotiate with his subjects: he just makes sure his proclamations are realistic and enforceable.’

‘There’s another thing,’ Gyle threw in, as if it had just occurred to him. ‘You have the battle-standards of the Noros legions in your hands, and many from previous rebellions in Argundy and other provinces. Give them back.’

Korion’s jaw dropped. ‘Fuck you, Noroman. I keep my trophies.’

‘If the battle-standards are returned, men will flock to enlist,’ Vult chimed in. ‘They will see themselves as forgiven. It will give them back their pride, and give them a reason to forgive the empire.’

‘Forgive?’ sneered Constant. ‘I taught them a lesson in the forgiveness of the empire: there is none!’

You taught us, did you, your Majesty? Gyle thought. Was that how it was? I understood you spent most of the Noros Revolt cowering in fear of assassins like me.

‘It is but the misguided perception of the common man,’ Vult replied smoothly, ‘but these feelings persist.’

The emperor’s mother stroked her son’s arm and whispered something in his ear. The emperor nodded slowly. ‘My mother reminds me that the people of Noros are yokels. We are fortunate to have two such rarities as yourselves able to attend upon us without chewing grass and stinking of cowshit.’

Betillon smirked. No one else moved a muscle. The moment stretched on.

Well, that shows us the true extent of our welcome. Gyle turned slightly. Out of the corner of his eye he  watched  Belonius,  apparently impervious to the insult. But then, he probably shares Constant’s assessment of his own people.

‘The suggestion is an excellent one,’ Mater-Imperia Lucia told the room. ‘The provinces know who their masters are. Rubbing their noses in it is counter-productive. Give them Echor in charge and their battle-standards back and they will enlist in droves.’

‘They’ll outnumber us in Kesh,’ Korion reminded her.

‘Not significantly. And once there, I am quite sure you will turn it to our advantage.’

‘How?’ sniffed Korion. ‘There’s no one to fight. We hear the Amteh priests have declared some sort of holy war but, realistically, they’ve got no magi, no constructs and no discipline. Crusades aren’t wars, they’re two-year treasure-hunts.’

Lucia permitted herself a small smile. ‘To which Magister Gyle has a response.’ She made a welcoming gesture. ‘Our guest awaits.’

‘Our guest?’ chorused Korion and Betillon in mutual exasperation. ‘This is the Closed Council,’ Constant whined, ‘not the tap-room of a tavern.’

Gyle ignored him, rose and walked to the door. He tapped, and the guard opened it. He breathed deeply as he went into the antechamber, inhaling fresher air. They’re like squabbling children, not leaders of men. They’ve no vision, no plan. It’s all just pettiness, self-interest and boasting.

Except Lucia. Her, I could follow.

The man waiting in the antechamber was robed in black with heavy furs draped about his shoulders, despite the summer heat. He dropped his hood and stood as Gyle entered the room. With his dark coppery skin, jet-black hair pulled tightly back from his face and a neatly trimmed beard and moustache, he was both striking and alien. His eyes glinted like emerald chips. Rubies adorned his ears, and a diamond periapt hung about his neck.

‘Emir,’ Gyle said, striding forward. ‘I trust you are well?’ ‘Magister,’ Emir Rashid Mubarak of Halli’kut purred in welcome.

He embraced Gyle courteously, kissing both his cheeks and patting his back in the space between the shoulder blades. In Kesh that was a gesture of reassurance – see, I could kill you, but I do not. Rashid was officially the fourth-ranked mage of Antonin Meiros’ Ordo Costruo, a three-quarter-blood descended from a pure-blood and a half-blood mage. His half-blood mother had been the child of a pure-blood who had married into a Keshi royal line before Meiros’ Leviathan Bridge was even completed. Her son was the result: a polished gemstone of a man, finely cut and glittering. ‘I am deathly cold. How do you stand it?’

‘This is summer, my lord. I advise you to depart before it snows.’ ‘I shall be leaving immediately afterwards. How goes the meeting?’ ‘Well enough,’ Gyle said. ‘Constant is in a sour mood. Address yourself to Lucia and ignore the idiocy from Korion and Betillon.’

‘Tomas Betillon is well-known to me. I am practised in dealing with him.’ Rashid shrugged. ‘What is that word you use for us: barbarian? He is that, I am thinking.’

Gyle glanced at the guard, who was staring at Rashid as if he were a construct beast of unusual strangeness, and suppressed a smile. ‘He surely is.’ He gestured towards the door. ‘Shall we go in?’

Vult met them at the door. ‘Ah, there you are.’ He inclined his head towards Rashid.

The Emir bowed. ‘It is my great pleasure to meet you at last. Magister Gyle has told me so much of you.’

Vult’s mouth twitched with humour. ‘Nothing bad, I trust, Gurvon?’

‘Only the truth, Bel.’

‘Oh dear. Well, Emir, you came despite that. We are about to discuss your role in our plans. Come in, my friend.’

Rashid paused. ‘Do not mistake me for a friend, Magister Vult. I am far from that.’

Belonius Vult smiled smoothly. ‘We have enemies in common, Emir. That is the strongest form of friendship I’ve ever known.’


Excerpted from The Scarlet Tides by David Hair. Copyright © 2013 by David Hair.
First published in Great Britain in 2013 by Jo Fletcher Books, an imprint of Quercus, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

The Ashes Diary by Michael Clarke – Extract

The Ashes Diary

1

INTRODUCTION

26 May. Home.

Here on my bedroom floor are my possessions for the next four months of my life.

My main suitcase contains casual clothes, toiletries and two green Australian cricket helmets. I have three blue cricket coffins. Two hold my cricket clothing, either whites or yellows, and a third holds all my training gear: shirts, shorts, tracksuits. Another green cricket coffin has my first-class cricket gear – bats, gloves, pads and so on – and one-day gear, the main items duplicated in gold limited-overs colours. I have four pairs of runners, each for different purposes, and six pairs of spiked  cricket boots travelling in shoeboxes. I have a rack of six Spartan cricket bats.

In another small bag I have some comfortable clothes to change into – we leave for  the  flight in our team suits – my passport, phone, sunglasses, keys, iPod mini and speaker, watch, personal toiletry items,  notepads and reading material. In this bag are also some special items, such as a copy of Zen in the Martial Arts by Joe Hyams, and personal messages I’ve been given. Taped to the inside flap of this bag is a piece of paper that I keep as a constant reminder of my guiding principle. It comes from Mike Young, the former Australian fielding coach, and it says:

A professional is . . . One who competes against the challenges brought before him by others and is willing to test himself each and every day to be the best he can possibly be and not the best others feel he should be!

Also in that special bag are my baggy green cap and the green and gold pouch that all Australian Test cricketers receive. My pouch is embroidered ‘M.J. Clarke 389’, indicating that 388 men have played Test cricket for Australia before me. My blazer pocket is embroidered with the number ‘43’, signifying the number I hold in the line of Australian Test cricket captains since 1877. I’m travelling fairly light, but with more than a century of history.

27 May. Emirates flight to Dubai and London.

On the flight, I unwind quietly and take the time to think. In the nearly two months since we came back from India, thinking is something I’ve been doing a lot of.

The first part of the year definitely didn’t go to plan. I’d pictured a successful Test tour to India, a season in the Indian Premier League (IPL) with  the  Pune  Warriors, and a good healthy build-up to this moment: my third Ashes tour, my first as Australian captain.
Instead, we lost the Tests in India 4–0. We had some well-publicised problems with team discipline. My back and right hamstring, which had been hurting for most of the Australian season, finally got the better of me in the last of those matches in India, which was shattering as I’d never missed a Test match through injury in my career. And then, as soon as I got home, I was hospitalised with a bout of gastroenteritis. Instead of playing IPL, I was getting over that gastro and driving two hours a day to and from my physio in Beecroft, in Sydney’s northern suburbs, from my home in Cronulla, to spend an hour and a half having a machine treating my back, combined with  hands-on  treatment.

Like I said: plenty of time to think.

I don’t accept the way we played in India. There’s a temptation to forget all about it – the past is the past and all that – but if you lose the way we lost, and don’t learn anything, you’ll never progress. What’s that saying: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it? We are  absolutely  determined  not  to  repeat  that  history in  England.

For me, the road back starts with rehabilitating my personal fitness. The sessions with my physio, Steve, on his MedX machine I regard as ‘money in the bank’. I sit in position in the machine while it stretches me to full flexion and full extension. Every second I spend in there is strengthening me. The machine weighs  too  much  to take around the world with me, so I  have  to  make  the most of it when I am home. We started  off with daily sessions, gradually winding back to three  days  a  week. The degenerative disc problem in my back has been with me since I was a teenager, and I know that batting and fielding for long periods aren’t the best thing for it – so making my back stronger, when I have the chance, is a matter of life and death for my career.

When I felt strong enough, I went down to Berrima in the Southern Highlands for my annual two-week ‘boot camp’ with fitness trainer Duncan  Kerr,  who I’ve known since I was 17. We did three sessions a day, starting early and ending late: a full mental and physical challenge. It’s extreme. I reckon I get six months worth of fitness in those two weeks – more money in the bank. In those hard and lonely hours, I’m not always thinking about cricket, but when I am, I’m thinking that no one out there, no one, is putting in this kind of preparation, and when I step onto the field at Trent Bridge on 10 July, I will know that no bowler will have encountered a batsman as physically fit as I’m going to make myself.

When I started out in Test cricket in 2004, some players didn’t take fitness quite this seriously. The Australian team had long moved on from beers and cigarettes at stumps, but there were only a few guys who treated batting as a full physical challenge requiring months of preparation. For me, a love of fitness was kind of in the blood. My sister Leanne used to do triathlons and is an aerobics instructor, and I’ve always loved the feeling of being fit. When I walk onto a ground to bat, in peak physical condition, it does wonders for my confidence. When you’re fit in your body, your mind stays clearer. Fatigue doesn’t play mental tricks on you. Ultimately, it’s the difference between playing that tired shot when you’ve been batting for two or three hours, and going on to bat for more than a day. It’s the difference between scoring 60 or 80, or a double-hundred.

On those drives to and from Steve’s, and on the runs in Berrima, my mind kept going back to the tour of India, where it was our batting that killed us. We had the best of the conditions, winning the toss and batting first in each Test match, but were never able to put 500 runs on the board. We batsmen have to take accountability for that. Individually, we all made starts, but we were hardly ever able to convert. At some point, our concentration slipped, and one mistake was fatal. We just didn’t have the endurance.

After my boot camp, I started spending three days a week, every Sunday through to Tuesday, at Cricket Australia’s Centre of Excellence in Brisbane. I began working on my batting again, and had some good chats with the other guys from the team who’d been coming to prepare. We all agreed that we needed to find out why we didn’t succeed in India, and to correct those shortcomings.

There’s no substitute for experience, and a lot of our team hadn’t played Test cricket in India. In our squad for England, only Brad Haddin, Shane Watson, Phillip Hughes, Peter Siddle and I will be backing up from the 2009 tour; and I’m the only one who’s enjoyed the great thrill of beating England in an Ashes series. We’re going to have to learn very quickly, and make the most of what we have picked up through One Day Internationals, Twenty20 and county stints in England. It’s partly for that reason that the selectors have gone for a more seasoned line-up this time, choosing Hadds as vice-captain and including Chris Rogers, who has scored something like 10,000 first-class runs in nearly a decade playing county cricket.

At the Centre of  Excellence,  we  have  been  batting on wickets prepared to simulate all the many varieties of English conditions. The ball might swing and seam, but if they have a dry summer it might also turn a lot, as it did in the decider at The Oval in 2009. As batsmen, we have to be adaptable. We’ve been having a lot of conversations about how to find our own way to succeed, but there are some general principles. We have to be disciplined at the start of our innings, giving ourselves at least 20 balls to assess the conditions. If we get a start, we absolutely must cash in. This requires a mental adjustment. In Australia, generally the longer you bat the easier things get, because the conditions don’t change very much and you can take a few things for granted. In India and England, once you’ve been in for a while you can’t make assumptions about the bounce, the ball  and  the  conditions  staying the same. The ball may start spinning more, or it might reverse-swing. Conditions in the UK change radically depending on whether the sun’s out, or if it’s overcast. So we have to be ready for anything.

I’m confident we can do it. Watching how a few of the guys developed in India, finding a way to make runs and get their confidence back, has me quietly confident that we have some characters who can turn a little bit of experience into a lot of learning.

The bowlers have also been thinking about how they’ll adapt. At the Centre of Excellence, we’ve been working on pitching the new ball a half-metre fuller, to give it every chance to swing. We’re also sick of the heartbreak of taking a key wicket only to find the bowler has overstepped the crease by millimetres. So we’ve been out on the centre wicket at the Allan Border Field, the pacemen coming in off their full runs, practising with a zero-tolerance policy on front-foot no-balls. We’re not going to be defeated by these one-percenters, because in Test cricket they become the difference between winning and losing.

It was lapses in those one-percenters that led to the incident in India where four players were stood down from the Third Test match in Mohali. Attention was given to the so-called ‘homework’ assignment they missed – it was actually just a chance to offer some ideas on how we could improve – but the reality was that we’d been slipping back in a number of key areas for several months, and Mickey Arthur, as coach, chose that moment to draw a line in the sand. He had my full support, and I think the guys responded well.

Of course, a lot was said about Shane Watson being one of the four, and there was speculation about my relationship with Watto. These things tend to get beaten up beyond belief. You can have a difference of opinion about where to go for dinner one night – this guy wants to eat Japanese, the other wants Italian – and all of a sudden they’re not speaking to each other! With Shane and me, there’s never been a rift or a feud. We’re just two different people. In our  preparation  period, he’s had another dominant season in the IPL with the Rajasthan Royals, and I’ve had a few chats with  him while he’s been over there. Shane rang me from India to inform me he was standing down as vice captain. If it frees his mind to pile up the runs and wickets, then I’m all for it.

We’re under no illusions about how hard this tour is going to be. England have won three of the last four Ashes series and regard themselves as favourites. That’s fine by me. We’re happy to go as underdogs. We will live and breathe cricket and challenge ourselves to become better players. If we do, we have a chance – a good chance – to prove a few people wrong, and when you win against the odds, nothing tastes sweeter. There will be a lot of things on the field that we can’t control, but when it comes to preparation, being ready to handle whatever comes my way, I personally will leave no stone unturned.


Excerpted from The Ashes Diary by Michael Clarke. Copyright © 2013 by Michael Clarke.
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.

That Close by Suggs – Extract

That Close

INTRODUCTION

I’ve been asked a few times over the years if I fancied writing my autobiography. But I never felt the time was quite right. A few years ago, a very nice publishing house offered me a more than fair amount of dough for the rights to my life story. They offered it on the proviso I worked with a ghostwriter. A meeting was duly set and I met this rather charming ghostwriter woman at the Bar Italia, in Soho, one sunny morning to see if we could get on.

The publisher told me she was the best-selling ghostwriter around. Over coffee we had a nice chat and she was taking notes, but as the conversation drew on, I noticed her pen hovering motionless between the less juicy bits. I could tell, unsurprisingly, she was searching for the more sensational end of my market. It turned out the reason she was cited as Britain’s most successful ghostwriter was that she’d penned the hugely best-selling David Beckham biography. Well, no disrespect to the great man, or the writer herself, at that time a monkey could have written a bestselling book about old Golden Balls.

Well, for me, what tipped me over the edge into thinking now is the right time was a set of converging circumstances.

On the eve of my fiftieth birthday I was standing on the balcony of an old music hall in Wapping called Wilton’s, one of the last of those great palaces of working-class entertainment, surveying a room full of friends and foes who’d come from all over the world to join me on this auspicious occasion. I was having the party the night before my actual birthday as the venue had already been booked on the night by Marc Almond.

Wilton’s is an amazing place. Just over a century ago the writer and theatre critic Henry Chance Newton said that ‘without its Palaces of Variety and its Music-Halls, living London would only be half alive.’ All of which makes it rather surprising that today just a handful of these places survive. So here I am surveying the scene on the eve of my fiftieth birthday, having a toast to Mr Wilton and his magical music hall, and it’s beautiful just looking round the room. Even my cheapest friends have dressed the part. It’s a room full of Victorian dandies, all top hats and mutton chops and girls of every shape and size bursting out of bodices left, right and indeed centre. And you don’t get many of them to the pound, missus!

The crazed, the lunatics and the thieving toerags had all turned up, and even people who aren’t in Madness. Boom boom. It was brilliant.

Anne (Bette Bright), my lovely wife, much to my surprise, had organised a whole music-hall show. There were sand dancers dressed as Egyptians dancing in hieroglyphic fashion. A burlesque singer, dressed, albeit briefly, as Vera Lynn. A pearly king making a ladder out of a rolled-up newspaper, whilst singing:

Oh it really is a wery pretty garden,
And Chingford to the eastward could be seen,
Wiv a ladder and some glasses, you could see to ’Ackney Marshes,
If it wasn’t for the ’ouses in between.

Lee Thompson, Madness sax player extraordinaire, did a tremendous Max Wall routine. He actually came on the Tube in the full outfit. Clive Langer, Madness producer, and his son Johnny, performed a stirring version of ‘My Old Man’s A Dustman’. My two lovely daughters, Scarlett and Viva, in giant nylon bee-hives, came on singing ‘Sisters’.

At the end of this fantastic night a giant birthday cake, I mean huge, was wheeled into the middle of the stage, and bang, out of it leapt this gorgeous woman as a finale to the show. I thought, Phwoah! I’m taking her home tonight. Ooh missus. It was my fiftieth birthday after all. It was my wife, Anne. It was a truly unforgettable night.

So there I was the following morning, on my actual birthday, lying in the bath, amongst the bubbles and ducks, mulling it all over. Feeling somewhat worse for wear but deeply content. Thinking about all them faces I saw at the party. People I grew up with on the council estate. People I went to school with, my family, my two lovely daughters all grown up and moved on, but only to within walking distance of our fridge.

Like a movie of faces floating past. People I’ve known since they were kids, whose lives splintered and fractured in a million different directions. Poets, painters, criminals, fruit and veg wholesalers, record company executives, dealers, dustmen, butchers, gardeners, lawyers, accountants, cocktail waiters, social workers and of course the band. The band Madness.

Mike (Barzo) Barson (Mr B)
Lee (Thommo) Thompson (Kix)
Chris Foreman (Chrissy Boy)
Cathal Smyth (Chas Smash)
Daniel Woodgate (Woody)
Mark Bedford (Bedders)

So many memories attached to each and every one of those faces I’ve known, on and off, down half a century.

When BANG, I hear a terrible crash, and I turn round to see my favourite cat, Mamba, lying motionless on the bathroom floor, surrounded by shards of glass. What’s happened here? Has he been fired through the window?

He looks perfect, there’s no blood coming out. But I sort of know he’s dead, I just can’t believe it. Hold on a minute – the glass shelf above the sink’s gone. Maybe he jumped up on it and it broke. But cats can’t die from a fall of four feet. Cats got nine lives. Cats can fall from eight-storey buildings, I’ve seen it on YouTube. But there he is, lying motionless on the floor. Maybe he just didn’t have time to right himself from such a short fall. Maybe he bashed his head on the sink on the way down.

But I just can’t believe it. My Mamba dead on my fiftieth birthday? The cat that caught eight mice in one day. The cat that saw off the horrible cat from next door that used to come in our house and spray on my shoes. The cat that used to climb up the ivy at the front of the house and knock on the bedroom window when he wanted to come in!

He was my best mate.

I get out of the bath, dripping, and feel his pulse. I feel his chest – he’s definitely getting colder. How can you do this to me, God, on my fiftieth birthday? Now I’m not gonna go on about pets. It’s a bit like people going on about their babies. Mine’s the prettiest, cleverest, etc. . . .

But I did love that cat.

We’re having a load of people around for dinner that night, including my kids. I don’t want to ruin the evening by telling everyone that the cat’s dead, and I’m half hoping he’s not. So I spend the entire night running up and down stairs to the top bathroom in the forlorn hope he’s only been concussed, that somehow he’ll wake up and stroll off. But he doesn’t.

The following morning I break the terrible news. There’s wailing and gnashing of teeth. Real sadness; he was a real character. We follow the usual procedure of trying to find poor old Mamba a vacant plot in the pet cemetery that is our back garden. Amongst the other cats, mice, gerbils, hamsters, rabbits, guinea pigs, the lizard and that goldfish that have come and gone through our house over the decades.

I even get my daughter’s boyfriend round for a bit of moral support. And to help with the digging. He was a big old cat.

He’s buried with all the usual formality, it’s sad, we all loved him. His big brother Voodoo looking down from the roof of the garden shed. After the funeral and a short wake in our local pub I’m off to see my mum. I didn’t get much of a chance to talk to her at the party. I jump in a black cab and direct the driver to Soho. After a couple of minutes the driver turns and says: ‘Here, Suggsy. You all right mate? You look a bit glum.’

I explain.

‘Well, actually it’s my fiftieth birthday today. I know it’s only a number, but it’s sort of just hit me. I haven’t really thought about it before. Fifty years, half a century of my life, gone!’

‘You don’t want to worry about that, son, I’m fifty-two, look at me.’ He glances in the mirror and carefully runs two fingers through his comb-over quiff, while I take in the back of his fat bald head.

‘Yeah right. Well, to tell you truth it’s not just that. My two lovely daughters have just left home, which has left a big hole in my life.’

‘What! Couldn’t wait to see the back of mine.’ He drives on.

‘Right . . . Well . . . OK . . . What’s really tipped me over the edge, and it might sound a bit stupid, but my cat died this morning.’

There’s an awkward silence. The cab slows and pulls into the kerb, and I hear what distinctly sounds like sobbing, crackling through the intercom.

‘My cat, Bubbles, died last week . . . I know exactly what you mean, mate.’

We get chatting about how I ran up and down stairs to see if Mamba was still alive. He tells me his Bubbles got run over in the street and he had to carry him in the house in a bin bag. And everyone in the street’s asking: ‘What’s in the bin bag?’ And telling me this sets him off again.

He tells me his next-door neighbour’s a vet, and the vet says to him: ‘Are you sure it was dead?’ and he says he thought it was, but he’s buried it now.

The vet says: ‘Well, if you’ve buried it, even if it wasn’t dead, it certainly is now.’

And that’s it. That’s what gets me going. I’m fifty. Life has changed dramatically since the kids left home. They’ve been at the centre of our lives for twenty-five years. I’ve suddenly found I have got time to reflect on my own life, now I’m not so busy with theirs. But it’s Mamba’s sudden death that’s really done it. He’s buried now.

Fate and chance, never knowing what’s round the corner. My whole life has been directed by so many quirks of fate, chance encounters that could have led me down so many different paths. It was often that close. That close to people, that close to success, that close to disaster.

We were that close, it was scary,
We were that close, I couldn’t tell you.
Ready for love, we were that close,
To getting it right, or crashing and burning.
Skidding on the surface, with the brake jammed down,
Slow motion sliding, head-on . . . we were that close.
Remember them summer days, when we took whatever came our way,
Getaway, hey, but not too far, took a spin round in your broken-down car,
No one else could know, what we done and seen,
No one else could see, it’s all a hazy dream.

I spent quite a lot of time on my own as a kid, being an only child of a single parent. Mum worked long hours in the clubs of Soho. And I got used to, and still enjoy, my own company. When I first met the rest of the band, in my teens, they were all very independent characters. A number of whom shared a similar background. A group of very strong-minded individuals. A band of loners. Joining the band and rehearsing in Mike’s bedroom in Crouch End of an evening, was, for me, a great alternative to running round the streets causing trouble.

I am often asked why I think it is that Madness are still as popular thirty-odd years on and, apart from the obvious fact that we had a lot of hits, I think it’s because we have always ploughed our own furrow and have rarely, if at all, been in fashion. That gave us an independence from the fickle business of show. And given that in the early days there’d be ten or more of us and our friends, often a lot more, on the road together, we could create our own crazy world, style and sound, which for some peculiar reason still resonates today. And I honestly feel that amongst all of our great achievements, the greatest is that we are still friends today.

Well, eyes down, boys and girls, here goes. After a few half-hearted attempts over the past few years, what is left of my befuddled memory is now down in black and white. Of course I have written before, and have always enjoyed writing, it was one of the few things I was any good at, at school. In fact, apart from art, the only thing I was any good at.

I’ve written another book, about London, called Suggs and the City, and jolly good it is too, but I did that with a lot of help from the people who worked with me on the Disappearing London TV series.

And of course I’ve written songs, loads of them.

Writing a good song isn’t easy, by any means, but the discipline is completely different. You’re more often than not collaborating with other people, and to be perfectly frank if you get a couple of good lines for a song, real good ones, it’s a productive day.

But this book-writing lark is quite a different fish. Hours and hours in front of a laptop, and if like me you have the brain of a deranged butterfly, it’s more than a small challenge.

Trawling through the backwaters, searching through the under-growth (amongst the used condoms and syringes of life). To the furthest corners of my unruly mind, for a minute nugget of info that may unlock another long-forgotten anecdote and help in the almost impossible task of trying to piece together the mostly unfathomable nonsense of my life.

I’m very grateful for my life, for many reasons, not least the opportunities it has given me to meet some of the most incredible characters. Without whom I would be as naught. And to be honest it’s not all there, maybe I’m not all there, and factually it may not be completely correct, but I do hope that these snapshots give you some sense of how Graham McPherson became Suggs.

To infinity and (one step) beyond!


Excerpted from That Close by Suggs. Copyright © 2013 by Graham McPherson.
First published in Great Britain in 2013 by Quercus Editions, 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.