Category Archives: October 2014

Dreamer’s Pool by Juliet Marillier – Extract


I fished out the rusty nail from under my pallet and scratched another mark on the wall. Tomorrow would be midsummer, not that a person could tell rain from shine in this cesspit. I’d been here a year. A whole year of filth and abuse and being shoved back down the moment I lifted myself so much as an inch. Tomorrow, at last, I’d get my chance to speak out. Tomorrow I would tell my story.

In the darkness of the cell opposite, Grim began muttering. A moment later the door down at the guard post creaked open.How Grim could tell the guards were coming before we heard them was a mystery, but he always knew. The muttering was a kind of shield. At night, when the place belonged to us prisoners, he spoke more sense.

A jingle of metal; footsteps approaching. Long strides, heavy footed. Slammer. Usually, when he came, we’d shrink back into the shadows, hoping not to draw his attention. Today I stood by the bars waiting. My time in this place had broken me down.

The person they’d locked up last summer was gone, and she wasn’t coming back. But tomorrow I’d speak for that woman, the one I had been. Tomorrow I’d tell the truth, and if the council had any sense of right and wrong, they’d make sure justice was done. The thought of that kept me on my feet even when Slammer went into his little routine, smashing his club into the bars of each cell in turn, liking the way it made us jump. Yelling his stupid names for us, names that had stuck like manure on a boot, so we even used them for one another, Grim and I being the only exceptions. Peering in to make sure we looked sufficiently cowed and beaten down.

‘Bonehead!’ The club crashed against Grim’s bars. ‘Stop your stupid drivelling!’

At the back of his cell Grim was a dark bundle against the wall, head down on drawn-up knees, hands over ears, still muttering away. Funny thing was, if Slammer had opened that cell door just a crack, Grim could have killed him with his bare hands and not raised a sweat doing it. I’d seen him at night, pulling himself up on the bars, standing on his hands, keeping himself strong as if there might be giants to kill in the morning.

The guard turned my way. ‘Slut!’ Crash!

I wished I had the strength to keep quite still as the club thumped the bars right by my head, but the three hundred and fifty-odd days had taken their toll, and I couldn’t help wincing.

Slammer didn’t move on to the cell next door as usual. He stopped on the other side of the bars, squinting through at me. Pig.

‘Got something to tell you, Slut.’ His voice was a confidential murmur now; it made my skin crawl. Slammer liked playing games. He was always teasing the men with talk of messages from home, or hinting at opportunities for getting out. He was a liar. They all were.

‘Something you won’t like,’ he said.

‘If I won’t like it, why would I want to hear it?’

‘Oh, you’ll want to hear this.’ He put his face right next to the bars, so close I could smell his foul breath. Not that it made much difference; the whole place stank of unwashed bodies and over-flowing latrine buckets and plain despair. ‘It’s about tomorrow.’

‘If you’re here to tell me that tomorrow’s the midsummer council, don’t trouble yourself. I’ve been waiting for this since the day I was thrown into this festering dump.’

‘Ah,’ said Slammer in a voice I liked even less than the previous one. ‘That’s just it.’

Meaning, I could tell, exactly the opposite. ‘What are you talking about?’

‘Now you’re interested.’

‘What do you mean, that’s just it?’

‘What’ll you give me, if I tell you?’

‘This,’ I said, and spat in his face. He was asking for it.

‘Euch!’ He wiped a sleeve across his cheek. ‘Filthy whore!’

Filthy was right; but not the other. I’d never given myself willingly in here, and I’d never been paid for the privilege. The guards had taken what they wanted in those first days, when I’d still been fresh; when I’d looked and felt and smelled like a woman.

They didn’t bother me now. None of them was desperate enough to want the rank, skinny, lice-ridden creature I’d become. Which meant I had nothing at all to offer Slammer in return for whatever scrap of information he was teasing me with.

‘That’s the last time you’ll spit at me, Slut!’ hissed Slammer.

‘You’re right for once, since I’ll be out of this place tomorrow.’

He smiled, but his eyes stayed cold. ‘Uh-huh.’ The way he said it meant I was wrong. But I wasn’t. I’d been told my name was on the list. The law said a chieftain couldn’t keep prisoners in custody more than a year without hearing their cases. And with all the chieftains of Laigin here, even a wretch like Mathuin, who didn’t deserve the title of chieftain, would abide by the rules.

‘You’ll be out, all right,’ Slammer said. ‘But not the way you think.’

Oh, he was enjoying this, whatever it was. My mouth went dry. Over in the cell opposite, Grim had fallen silent. I couldn’t see him now; Slammer’s bulk took up all my space. I forced myself to keep quiet. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of hearing me beg.

‘You must have really got up Mathuin’s nose,’ he said. ‘What did you do to make him so angry?’ Perhaps knowing he wouldn’t get an answer, Slammer went right on. ‘Overheard a little exchange. Someone wants you out of the way before the hearing, not after.’

‘Out of the way?’

‘Someone wants to make sure your case never goes before the council. First thing in the morning, you’re to be disposed of.

Quick, quiet, final. Name crossed off the list. No need to bother the chieftains with any of it.’ He was scrutinising me between the bars, waiting for me to weep, collapse, scream defiance.

‘Why have you told me this?’ A lie. A trick. He was full of them.

I willed my heart to slow down, but it was hopping all over the place like a creature in a trap.

‘What, you’d sooner not know until I drag you out there in the morning and someone gives you a nasty surprise? Little knife in the heart, pair of thumbs to the throat?’

‘You’re lying.’

‘Better say your prayers, Slut.’ He moved off along the row.

‘Poxy!’ Smash! ‘Strangler!’ Crash! ‘Frog Spawn!’ Slam!

Across the walkway, Grim was standing at the front of his cell, big hands wrapped around the bars.

‘What are you looking at?’ I snarled, turning away before my face could show him anything. The three hundred and fifty-odd marks stared back from the wall, mocking me. Not a count to freedom and justice after all; only a count to a swift and violent end. Because, deep down, I knew this must be true. Slammer didn’t have the imagination to play a trick like this.


‘Shut your mouth, Grim! I never want to hear your wretched voice again!’ I sank down on the straw pallet with its teeming population of insects. Even these fleas would live longer than me. I wished I could find that amusing. Instead, the anger built and built, as if the swarm of crawling things was inside me, breeding and multiplying and spreading out into every corner of my body until I was ready to burst. How could this be? I’d held out here for one reason and one reason only. I’d endured all those poxy days and wretched, vermin-infested nights, I’d listened to that idiot Grim mumbling away, I’d seen and heard enough to give me a lifetime of nightmares. And I’d stayed alive. I’d held on to one thing: the knowledge that eventually I’d get my day to be heard. Midsummer. The council. It was the law. Curse it! I’d done it all for this day, this one day! They couldn’t take it away!

The crawling things broke out all at once. From a distance,detached, I watched myself hurling objects around the cell, heard myself shouting invective, felt myself hitting my head on the wall, slamming my shoulder into the bars, ripping at my hair, my mouth stretched in a big ugly square of hatred. Felt the tears and snot and blood dribbling down my face, felt the filth and shame and utter pointlessness of it all, knew, finally, what it was that drove so many in here to cut and maim and, eventually, make an end of themselves. ‘Slammer, you liar!’ I screamed. ‘You’re full of shit! It’s not true, it can’t be! Come back here and say it again, go on, I dare you! Filthy vermin! Rancid scum!’

It was catching, this kind of thing. Pretty soon everyone in the cells was shouting along with me, half of them yelling at Slammer and the other guards and the unfairness of everything, the rest abusing me for disturbing them, though there wasn’t much to disturb in here. Crashes and thumps told me I wasn’t the only one throwing things. All the while, there was Grim, standing up against his own bars, silent and still, watching me.

‘What are you staring at, dimwit?’ I wiped a sleeve across my face. ‘Didn’t you hear me? Mind your own business!’

He retreated to the back of his cell, not because of anything I had said, but because down the end of the walkway the door had crashed open again and the guards were coming through at a run.

It was the usual when we got noisy: buckets of cold water hurled in to drench us. If that didn’t work, someone would be dragged out and made an example of, and this time around that person would have to be me. Not that a beating made any difference. Not if Slammer had been telling the truth.

I got a bucket of slops. There was a bit of cursing from the others, but everyone stopped yelling, not wanting worse. The guards left, taking their empty buckets with them, and there I was, drip-ping, stinking, bruised and bleeding from my own efforts, with the buzzing insects of my fury still swarming inside me. The cell was a mess, and with wretched Grim over there, only a few paces away, there was nowhere to hide. Nowhere I could curl up in a ball with the blankets over my head and cry. Nowhere I could give way to the terror of knowing that in the morning I would die, and Mathuin would be alive and going about his daily business, free to do to other folk’s families what he had done to mine. I would die with my loved ones unavenged.

I scrabbled on the floor, searching among the things I’d hurled everywhere, and my fingers closed around the rusty nail. Those marks on the wall were mocking me; they were making a liar of me. I hated the story they told. I loathed the failure they showed me to be. Weak. Pathetic. A vow-breaker. A loser. With the nail clutched in my fist I scratched between them, around them, over them, making the orderly groups of five, four vertical, one linking horizontal, into a chaotic mess of scribble. What was the point in hope, when someone always snatched it away? Why bother telling the truth if nobody would listen? What use was going on when nobody cared if you lived or died?

I waited for death. Thought how odd human nature was. All paths were barred, all doors closed. There was no escaping what was coming. And yet, when the guard known as Tiny – a very tall man – brought around the lumpy grey swill that passed for food in this place, I took my bowl and ate. We were always hungry. One or two of the men caught rats sometimes and chewed them raw. I’d never had the stomach for that, though Strangler, in the cell next to mine, always offered me a share. In the early days we used to talk about food a lot; imagine the first meal we’d have when they let us out. Fresh fish cooked over a campfire. Mutton-fat porridge.

Roast duck with walnut stuffing. Carrot and parsnip mashed  with butter. For me it was a chunk of bread and cheese or a crisp new apple. When I thought of that first bite my belly ached and so did my heart. Then I’d got beaten down and worn out, like an old mattress with the stuffing gone to nothing, and I didn’t care anymore. Same with the others; we were grateful for the swill, and thankful that Tiny didn’t rattle our cages and scream at us. So, even when I was looking death in the eye, so to speak, I ate. Across the walkway, Grim was on his pallet, scooping up his own share and trying to watch me and avoid my eye at the same time.

The long day passed as they always did. Grim muttered to himself on and off, making no sense at all. Frog Spawn went through his list of all those who had offended him, and what he planned to do to them when he got out. It was a long list and we all knew it intimately, since he recited it every day. The others were quiet, though Poxy did ask me at one point if I was all right, and I snarled, ‘What do you think?’, making it clear I didn’t want an answer.

I sat on the floor, trying out the pose Grim seemed to find most comforting when under threat, head on knees, arms around legs, eyes squeezed shut. The day before you died was the longest, slowest day ever. It gave you more time than you could possibly want to contemplate all the things you’d got wrong, the chances you’d missed, the errors you’d made. It was long enough to convince the most hopeful person that there was no point in anything. If only this . . . if only that . . . if only I had my chance, my one chance to be heard . . .

Another round of swill told us it was getting on for night time; a person wouldn’t know from the windows, which were kept shuttered. It was a long time since they’d last let us out into the courtyard. Maybe Mathuin’s men didn’t know folk could die from lack of sunshine. Our only light came from a lantern down the end of the walkway. Frog Spawn’s ravings slowed then stopped as he fell asleep.

‘Hey, Slut!’ called Strangler. ‘Place won’t be the same without you!’

‘Our lovely lady,’ put in Poxy, mostly mocking, a little bit serious. ‘We’ll miss you.’

‘Don’t let the vermin take you without a fight, Slut,’ came the voice of Dribbles from down the far end. ‘Give ’em your best, tooth and nail.’

‘When I want your advice,’ I said, ‘I’ll ask for it.’

‘Wake us up when they come for you,’ said Strangler. ‘We’ll  give you a proper send-off. Worth a bucket or two of slops.’

Grim wasn’t saying anything, just sitting there gazing across at me, a big lump of a man with a filthy mane of hair, a bristling beard and sad eyes.

‘Stop looking at me,’ I muttered, wondering how I was going to get through the night without going as crazy as Frog Spawn. If there was nothing I could do about this, why was my mind teeming with all the bad memories, all the wrongs I hadn’t managed to put right? Why was the hate, the bitterness, the will for vengeance still burning in me, deep down, when the last hope was gone?

Finally they all slept; all but Grim and me. The lantern burned low. Soon we’d be in darkness.



‘Maybe you can . . .’

‘Maybe I can what? Fly through stone walls? Charm the guards with my feminine wiles and make a miraculous escape? Wave a wand and turn them all into toads?’ He was silent.

‘I can’t fix this, Grim. I wish I had a magic charm to set the world to rights. To see evil-doers punished and good men rewarded. To see the innocent protected and the guilty judged. But it doesn’t work that way.’ I looked across at him hunched on his pallet. ‘I hope you survive,’ I said, finding that I meant it. ‘I hope you don’t have to wait too long for . . . whatever comes next.’ I vowed to myself that when the end came I would be strong. No pleading; no tears; no cries for mercy. I would not give them the satisfaction.

‘You should try to sleep,’ I said.

Another silence, then Grim spoke. ‘I’ll wait up. If that’s all right.’

‘Suit yourself.’

Time passed. If I’d had even a skerrick of faith in gods of one persuasion or another, I’d have prayed to them to make a lie of Slammer’s words, or if that wasn’t possible, at least to give someone else the chance to do what death would prevent me from doing. Never mind my own so-called crime and the need to prove my innocence. Mathuin must be brought to account. He must be stopped. He must be made to pay.

But I did not believe in gods, not anymore, and there was nobody else. When I died, my vengeance would die with me.

There was no justice in the world. Maybe I could use the rusty nail to slit my wrists. Better to make an end of myself than let Slammer or one of the others butcher me like a pig for the table. More dignity in it this way. But no; I’d blunted the nail with my wild scratching, and it wouldn’t even break the skin. I contemplated sticking it in my eye. But that wouldn’t be final enough, and I doubted I had the resolve anyway.

I could smash my head against the bars, harder than before, but I’d probably only knock myself senseless and come to just in time for that little knife Slammer had mentioned. Hanging was too slow. By the time I’d ripped up my skirt and made a noose, then managed to tie it high enough, Grim would have made enough racket to fetch whichever guard was sleeping outside the door down the end. Which made no sense, when you thought about it; rush in to stop a person killing herself, so you could do the job for her in a scant – what – six hours or so?

‘How long till dawn, do you think?’ I murmured.

‘A while yet.’ Grim’s voice was held quiet, too, so as not to wake the others. In this place, good sleep was a gift not to be taken lightly. He muttered something else.


‘I’d go in your place, if I could.’

I hadn’t thought the big man had it in him to surprise me, but I’d been wrong. ‘That’s just stupid,’ I said. ‘Of course you wouldn’t.

All men are liars, and you’re no better than the rest of them.’

A silence, then. After a while he said, ‘I would, Lady. The way I see it, your life’s worth something. Mine’ll never amount to much.’

‘Bollocks. My life, the one I had, is gone. Even if I walked out of here right now, a free woman, it would still be gone. There was one thing I wanted: justice.’ Sounded good; wasn’t the whole truth.

‘Two things. Justice and vengeance. I don’t mind dying so much.

My life’s a poorer thing than you imagine. But I do mind dying with that man unpunished. That fills me up with fury.’

‘Lord Mathuin?’ Grim’s voice was not much more than a breath, and in that moment the lantern flickered and went out, plunging us into darkness.

‘One more day. Was that too much to ask, one poxy day?’

This time the silence stretched out so long I wondered if he had fallen asleep. But then his voice came again.

‘How will I . . .’ A long pause. ‘I don’t know how I’ll . . .’

‘How you’ll what?’

No reply.

‘You don’t know how you’ll what, Grim?’

‘Nothing. Forget it.’

The night wore on, and in the cells it was quiet. Was it getting close to morning out there, or was I only imagining that? At a certain point I began to shiver and found I couldn’t stop, even when I curled up on the pallet with the blanket wrapped around me, a grub in a meagre cocoon. The shaking was deep down,as if frost was creeping into my bones. My teeth chattered; my joints ached like an old woman’s. My good intentions, of standing up bravely before they did whatever they were going to do to me, vanished away in the face of my wretched, trembling body.

Maybe, when a person was truly terrified, mortally afraid, there was no hiding it, not even for the best dissembler in all Erin.

‘Hey, Grim!’ I forced the words out. ‘Talk to me about something warm, will you?’

‘Big woollen blanket,’ Grim said straight away. ‘Flame red in colour. Wrapping you up from head to toe, with only your face showing. Roaring fire, throw on a pine cone or two for the smell.

Bowl of barley broth. Mulled ale with spices. Curl your hands around the cup, feel the warm in your bones.’ A pause. ‘Any better?’ His voice sounded odd.

‘Yes,’ I lied. ‘Keep it up.’

‘Out of doors,’ Grim said. ‘Big field of barley all ripe and golden, sun shining down, yellow flowers in the grass. You go down to paddle in the stream, and the water’s like a warm bath. Ducks swimming by with little ones. A dog running about. Sky as blue as – as –’

‘Forget-me-nots,’ I said. ‘Grim, are you all right?’

‘Fine,’ he mumbled. ‘All out of words now.’

A sudden rattling at the door down the end. If I’d been cold before, now I was frozen. They were here. Already, they’d come for me.

‘Wake up the others. That’s what they said.’

‘No, Grim. Let them sleep.’

The door creaked open, as if someone was trying not to make too much noise. The light that came through was not the light of day, but the glow of a lantern. Out there it must still be night time. They were robbing me, not only of midsummer day and the council, but of half the night before as well. Typical of this piss-hole and the foul apologies for men that ran it.

Slammer was at the bars. I stood by my pallet, the blanket around me, trying to breathe.‘You got a visitor.’

‘A what?’ How many stupid tricks could he inflict on me before this was all over? ‘A visitor. Make yourself tidy, and be quick about it.’

I was dreaming. Nobody had visitors in here, and especially not me. Who was there to come? Unless it was Mathuin wanting to gloat, and he’d hardly do that at a time when all sensible folk were in their beds fast asleep.

Slammer was unfastening the door of my cell; swinging it  open. ‘Hurry up,’ he said. ‘Haven’t got all night.’

A lie. It had to be. The only reason they’d let me out of here was so they could kill me without anyone finding out, or at least anyone that mattered. Night time would make that easier. I’d be neatly buried in some corner before the sun was even thinking about rising.

‘Slammer.’ Grim spoke in a tone I had never heard before; it sent a chill right through me. ‘You’re top of my list. When I get out of here, I’ll hunt you down, I swear it. Before I’m done with you, you’ll be in such little pieces nobody will know you were ever a man.’

‘Hah!’ Slammer was scornful. ‘When you get out of here? By  that time you’ll be an old man, Bonehead, a dotard dribbling into your beard.’

‘Shut up!’ mumbled a sleepy voice from further along the cells.

Slammer seized me by the arm and hauled me out of my cell, then along the walkway beside him, blanket and all. There was nobody at the guard post and the door was ajar. We were going outside. Out into the open air, under the night sky.

‘Get a move on,’ Slammer said.

I snatched a glance at moon and stars as he hustled me across the courtyard. The open space made me dizzy. I sucked in a breath of air, but all I could smell was my own filthy body. No sign of the other guards; no sign of an executioner. Maybe Slammer had requested the privilege of doing it all by himself. He was pushing me ahead of him now, into some kind of outhouse – I had a sudden image of myself being hauled up on a rope like a pig for the slaughter – and then there was the bright light of two lamps, and a man sitting at a table looking at me, and the shock of realising that maybe Slammer had been telling the truth.

‘Thank you,’ the man said, rising to his feet. ‘Leave us now.’

‘Woman’s a miscreant,’ Slammer protested. ‘Not safe –’


‘Against the rules,’ Slammer muttered.

The man – long-legged, dressed in a fine hooded cloak – suddenly had a little jingling bag in his hand. He counted out some coins. ‘I doubt that I’ll be in any danger,’ he said, ‘but you’re welcome to stay just outside the door. We’ll call you when we’re done here.’ The bag was put away, still jingling, and Slammer went out and closed the door behind him.

‘Sit down, please,’ said my visitor, as if we were a pair of high-born folk meeting for a little chat.

I sat down on a bench; I was still shivering. The tall man seated himself opposite me and slipped back his hood. This was a person of striking beauty, and almost certainly fey or half-fey. I had seen enough of his kind, in my old life of long ago, to recognise the signs: the widely spaced eyes, the broad brow, the proud, chiselled features.

His manner suggested privilege, certainly, but it was lacking in the arrogance of men like Mathuin of Laois. Facing him across the table, I was sharply aware of my lice-ridden, scabby body in its ragged apology for clothing. What in Morrigan’s name was this elegant creature doing here? He could hardly be my executioner.

‘You don’t remember me, do you?’ he asked, lifting his brows as if at some private joke.

So he was going to play games too. I had never seen him in my life before. ‘I don’t know you, and I don’t know why you’re here.’ After a moment, because he had not called me Slut, I added,

‘My lord.’

The stranger sat there examining me for a while. I made sure I looked him in the eye. If I was pathetic and wretched, draggled and filthy, that was not from any fault of mine. I was damned if I’d leave this place looking beaten, even if that was the way I felt.

‘Your case was up to be heard today, yes?’

I managed a jerky nod. Was. So he knew. ‘The guard told me that plan’s been changed.’

‘Did he tell you the new plan?’

‘A quick and covert disposal at dawn. No due process, no hearing, no case.’ What business was it of his? ‘Are you going to tell me who you are?’ I blurted out. ‘Did Mathuin send you?’

Unlikely; a fey nobleman would hardly act as messenger boy for a human leader. ‘I have a proposition for you,’ the man said. ‘If a name will help you trust me, I will give it. I am Conmael.’

It meant absolutely nothing. I couldn’t for the life of me imagine why the fellow would have any interest in what happened to me.

As for offering my own name, I’d had one when they’d locked me up, and another one before that, but I wasn’t going to share either with a complete stranger. ‘What proposition?’ Under the circum-stances, only one kind of proposition was of any interest, and that was one that would see me survive the dawn and stand up before the council as I’d expected. How this Conmael would achieve such a thing, and why he’d bother, was quite beyond me. Lies, all lies – what else could this be? ‘I’m growing weary of tricks,’ I said.

‘These days, I lose my temper quickly.’

Conmael smiled. He folded his hands on the table before him.

His fingers were long and graceful; he wore a number of silver rings. ‘It is no trick,’ he said. ‘Nor is it an unconditional offer of freedom. But you can leave this place safely, no longer in fear of your life, provided you agree to my terms.’

Despite everything, my heart leaped at the word freedom. I clamped down the sudden elation. He wanted something from me, no doubt of that. I couldn’t imagine what it might be, since I had nothing at all to offer. The whole thing was deeply suspect. I might be exchanging my present hell on earth for something even worse. But you’d be alive, said a little voice inside me. ‘Terms. What terms?’

‘You had a calling before ill luck visited you. A profession, a direction in life. Yes?’

If he thought I was going to talk about the time before, he was wrong. That was past, over, forgotten. All that remained was Mathuin, and vengeance.

‘You have certain talents by which you can provide for yourself and do good in the community.’

‘Had. Not have. That time’s over. That woman’s gone.’

‘If you were free now, this moment, what would you do?’

‘Why would I tell you that? You could be anyone. You could be in Mathuin’s pay.’

‘I am in no man’s pay. Answer my question, please.’

‘I’d do what I thought I’d be doing until the guard kindly brought me the news that my execution was imminent. I’d stand up before the midsummer council. Explain what it was that got me locked up. Tell them what Mathuin does. Tell the story of the young woman who fell pregnant with his child when he took her by force, and how her husband abandoned her when he found out, and how she asked me to help her get rid of the child. How I spoke out publicly against Mathuin, and found that there were a dozen other women whom he’d treated in the same way. How he locked me up for smearing his name.’ Mathuin should be brought to account for his behaviour, most certainly. But it was not this wrong that burned in me, crying out for vengeance. It was a far older evil. I would not tell of that. When the chieftain of Laois had imprisoned me, he had not known who I was. I’d planned to tell him when I spoke out before the council. ‘I want that man exposed for what he truly is. I want him punished. Mathuin is not fit to be chieftain.’

‘And afterwards?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘After you expose the chieftain of Laois as an evil-doer and have him removed from his position of power, what then?’

‘Don’t mock me!’

‘Answer the question, please. Dawn is fast approaching.’

‘Then nothing. All that matters is . . .’

‘Vengeance?’ Conmael’s voice was very quiet. ‘This is not simply a case of standing up for those women, is it? It’s more, far more. It’s a burning need to right a personal wrong. An old wrong.’

I stared at him, and he gazed back, eyes blue as deep water, handsome features perfectly composed. ‘How can you know all this? Who are you?’

‘A friend. Someone who would rather not see you destroyyourself.’

‘Destroy myself? It’s Mathuin who’s doing the destroying.’

‘If you want me to help you, you must set your need for vengeance aside.’

‘Then the answer is no.’ If I could not make an end to Mathuin’s ill-doing, what point was there in anything?

Conmael was silent for a little. Then he said, ‘Life is a precious gift. It seems you set a low value on yours. Consider what you could do with this opportunity. You could help people. Free them from pain and suffering. You could heal your own wounds.’

‘I’m not after personal redemption. I want justice. I want that man to admit to his misdeeds. I want him to pay the price.’

‘Refuse my offer, and you’ll be the one paying the price.’

‘What do you want from me?’ My temper was hanging on a fast-fraying thread. ‘Get to the point!’

‘Ah, so you will hear my terms, then?’

‘I’d be stupid not to.’ Letting him set out his conditions, whatever they were, would at least keep me out of the cells a bit longer.

Was that the first trace of dawn light coming in around the edges of the door?

‘Very well. I’m offering you a chance to be safely out of here before they come for you. You’d leave the district and travel north to Dalriada. There’d be help along the way, and a place to stay when you got there. After that, you’d need to earn a living doing what you did before. There’s always a need for skilled healers.’

‘Travel north. When?’

‘Straight away.’

As I made to speak again, to say I couldn’t go anywhere because I had to appear at the council, Conmael gestured me to be quiet.

‘There are three conditions you must agree to meet before I grant you this opportunity. Firstly, the considerable skill you possess must be used only for good. You will not let bitterness or anger draw you down the darker ways of your craft. Secondly, if anyone asks for your help, you will give it willingly. I do not mean solely those who come to you for assistance with their ailments, but anyone at all who seeks your aid.’

‘And thirdly?’ It occurred to me that I could be as good a liar as anyone. What was to stop me from agreeing now, and once I was out of here, doing whatever I pleased? I might yet live beyond dawn and see Mathuin brought down before nightfall. My heart began to race.

‘Thirdly, you will not seek vengeance. You will remain in

Dalriada and stay away from Mathuin of Laois.’

That, I could not do. But I bit back the no that sprang to my lips. ‘Is there a period of time attached to this ridiculous proposition?’

Conmael gave a cool smile. ‘Seven years,’ he said. ‘That is the term for all three conditions.’

I opened my mouth to say yes, but he got in first. ‘You understand what I am, I believe. Although you may not always see me, I will be watching. You will not break the terms without my knowledge. Each time you do so, one further year will be added to the seven.’

What? ’ Morrigan’s curse, I’d be lucky if I managed seven days, let alone seven years! Walk away and leave Mathuin behind me, his crimes not only unpunished but not even reported? Agree to every single request for help? As for using my gifts for good, all the good had been beaten out of me long ago. My spirit was as stained and foul as my reeking, vermin-ridden body. But then, what did it matter if I was bound to his stupid plan for my whole life, provided I saw Mathuin brought to justice first?

‘Mathuin has done ill deeds,’ Conmael said. ‘He’s also a powerful chieftain who enjoys the support of many fellow leaders. You are a prisoner, without family, without resources, with no home to go to and no friends to help you. Even if you did stand up at the council, even if you did make these accusations before the assembled chieftains, who would take your word against Mathuin’s? All you would achieve is your own destruction. So let us set a limit on the number of times you may break the rules. Five, I think.’

‘Or what happens?’

‘Or you find yourself back here, filthy, worn down, defeated, with the executioner knocking on your door. And this time, no reprieve.’

I gaped at him. ‘Are you telling me you can turn back time?’ He was fey, no doubt of that, and the fey had powerful magic. I had seen it, long ago. But this – the fellow must be out of his mind. Conmael’s gaze was wintry. ‘Try to exact vengeance now, and you will surely fail. You are no fool; in your heart, you know that is simple truth. Exercise patience and self-control for the period I have set out, and you may have some small chance of success later.

My proposal is your only way forward. It would be a mistake to believe I cannot, or will not, do exactly what I have told you.’

‘You’re proposing that instead of being Mathuin’s prisoner I should be yours.’

Conmael rose to his feet. ‘That comment shows a wilful misunderstanding of the situation. I thought I’d made myself quite clear.

I’m offering a home, safety, an opportunity to do some good. I’m giving you the chance to remake your life. You’d be the first to say what a wretched, broken thing it has become.’

I found myself unable to speak. Conmael moved toward thedoor. Almost dawn. He put his hand on the latch.

‘Wait!’ My mouth was dry. ‘Supposing I agree to this and stick to the conditions, what happens after seven years?’

He turned his head toward me. His face was grave. ‘Then you are your own woman again, and free to make your own choices.’He opened the door, and there was Slammer, waiting. ‘We’re done here,’ Conmael said, and before I could get another word out, he had stepped past the guard and was gone from view.

‘Wait!’ I called. ‘Yes! I say yes!’ I rushed out the door and into the immoveable form of Slammer.

But there was no reply; only the plangent note of a bird as it flew across the brightening sky: Fool! Fool!

Conmael was nowhere to be seen.



She goes out and the door shuts behind her. Gone. Not coming back. Not ever. Don’t rightly know how  I’ll go on without her. Don’t know how I can keep on breathing through the dark. As long as she’s here I’m still alive, deep down. As long as she’s here I’ve got a job to do.

Someone to look after. When they kill her, I’ll know. I’ll feel it like she does, the moment, the snuffing out. After that it’ll be dark all the time. Nobody to hear me. Nobody to see me. When she’s gone, I’m gone.

‘Shut it, Bonehead!’ someone yells from down the other end.

Didn’t think I’d been making any noise. Put my head down on my knees, stuff a fold of blanket up against my mouth, push the words in. Squeeze my eyes tight. Stupid. You can’t see the sunrise in here anyway. But I do see it: the sky getting brighter, the guards holding her still, the knife flashing in the sun. She’ll be brave. She’s been brave from the day they threw her in here. Standing up for me. Talking me through the dark. Snappish and foul-mouthed, but alive. So much alive. Like a flame that never goes out, no matter what. Looking over at me and seeing, not a big lump of nothing, but a man.

Door creaks. Keys jingle. I start the words to shut the bad things out.

‘Get a move on, Slut!’ Slammer snarls. Then, ‘For the love of all the gods, Bonehead, knock it off!’ And, a wonder, I hear her steps along the walkway and the clang of her cell door.

She’s back.

Slammer leaves her. I wait till the door down the end shuts behind him. Lift my head; try to keep my voice steady. ‘Lady?You there?’

‘Shut up, Grim.’

‘Who was it? Did they . . . ?’

‘Are you deaf? I said shut up.’

I do as she says. When that door opened, light came in. I heard a bird singing. It’s got to be nearly dawn. Why did Slammer bring her back? I want to ask, Does this mean they’re not going to kill you after all? But they are, or she wouldn’t be hunched up in there, trying not to cry. I can’t see her, but I know that’s what she’s doing.

Who came to visit her? She always said there was nobody. Maybe that’s a lie. Maybe there’s a husband, a lover, a sad mother or father out there. ‘Lady?’

She sighs, a little sound in the dark. ‘I was offered a lifeline and I was too stupid to take it. Too slow, too cautious. Missed my opportunity. Nothing’s changed. The sun will come up, just the same as it does every day, and what happens will happen.’ She goes quiet for a bit, then says, ‘If you ever get a second chance, Grim, grab it with both hands. Don’t hesitate for a moment, you hear me?’

‘If I could hold a tune,’ I tell her, ‘I’d sing you a song.’

‘Spare me.’

‘What song would you want, if I could?’

‘Believe me, I wouldn’t.’

‘If it was me going out there, I wouldn’t want one of those trumpet-call, flag-waving things. I’d want a lullaby. I’d want to be sung to sleep quietly.’

‘What are you trying to do, Grim, turn me into a blubbering heap? Don’t sing, I beg you. I don’t want a march, I don’t want a ballad, I don’t want a dance. And I really, really don’t want a lullaby.’

‘Good,’ I say. Funny; my effort to stop her crying has left my own face all tears. ‘Because I’m the worst singer you ever heard.

Even Strangler’s a better musician than me.’

‘Not crying, are you, Grim? A big bad fellow like you?’

‘Me? Nah.’

I’m just saying this when there’s a crash like the end of the world, and all of a sudden I’m lying on my back with everything coming down around me, and somewhere above me, above the heap of rubbish that’s weighing down my chest and legs and half covering my face, there’s open sky. Everyone’s shouting.

Takes me a while to get myself out; for a bit I think my leg might be broken, but no, I can move all right. Place is all chunks of stone, bent bars, splintered wood, like a huge storm has hit it, but there’s no rain coming down, no wind roaring over, just that sky calling me to climb up and get out, quick, before the guards come.

Scrabbling noises tell me the others have the same idea, and now here’s Poxy clambering toward me across a mountain of rubble, his face all over dust, and after him comes Dribbles, making sobbing noises as if he can’t catch his breath.

The bars of my cell are bent all out of shape; I squeeze between them into what’s left of the walkway, and there’s Lady, white as a ghost, muttering something about not hearing her say yes. Making no sense at all. Need to get her out, quick. Where the guard post door was there’s a big heap of stones. Roof’s broken open up above my cell. From behind us, down the other end, comes an awful muffled screaming. I look that way and all I see is a tangle of bars and stones; the whole place has come down on Strangler, Frog Spawn and the others. Not dead, though. At least one of them’s not dead.

I grab Lady’s hand and pull her over to the spot where the roof’s open. ‘I’ll boost you up,’ I tell her. ‘Crawl across the roof and climb down on the western side. Then run. There’s woods not far off.’ As I’m bending to get hold of her so I can lift her up to the gap, I see it: Slammer’s hand sticking out from under all those stones, with a knife in it.

‘But –’ Lady’s protesting. I make sure she’s got hold of the edge of the broken roof, then push her up so she can scramble out.

‘Shut up and run! Don’t look back!’

She disappears through the hole. I’m not hearing much from outside, no shouting, no hammering, nobody rushing to the rescue, and that’s mostly a good thing; if they’re slow to come, she’ll be in the woods before anyone spots her. Away. Safe. I’ll have done my job.

Poxy doesn’t look too badly hurt. I boost him up high enough to haul himself out. He’s hefty, even on the gruel diet. Then I lift up the bundle of skin and bone that’s Dribbles, and Poxy leans down through the hole to grab his arms and pull while I push from underneath. Can’t see Dribbles getting far, out there.

‘Look after him, eh?’ I say to Poxy, but the boys aren’t talking; just getting up through the hole’s been enough of a stretch. They’re out of sight, and I head back to the other end, where everything’s come down in one god-awful mess.

It’s Strangler doing the screaming. No sound at all from the others. It’ll take me too long to dig them out, and if they’re still alive, they won’t be in a fit state to run anywhere. But I can’t leave Strangler without at least trying.

Big block of stone leaning up against his cell; can’t see him, only the bars broken and sticking out, and a pile of rubble behind.

‘Strangler! Coming to get you! Try and keep quiet, will you, don’t want the guards in here.’

‘Bonehead! Shit, this hurts!’ Strangler’s voice is all pain.

I try to shift the big block, which is nearly as tall as I am and too wide to get my arms around. I move it a whisker and a pile of stuff falls on me. I look up and see that if I shift this any further, the other half of the roof’s going to come down and Strangler and me will be flat as griddle cakes. Can I tunnel in below maybe, slip him out like a ferret from its hole?

‘Hang on, Strangler. Listen, can you move? Can you get down on the floor?’

He tries, it hurts, he starts to scream and bites it back.

‘If you can get down low I might be able to pull you out under here. There’s a gap, just small. But you always were a skinny runt of a man. Look, here, I’m sticking my arm through. Can you feel it?’ This is taking too long. I can hear someone shouting out there.

If the guards spot us going over the roof, they’ll be onto us before we get a chance to run.

A hand touches mine. He’s there, he’s made it. ‘Good man. Can you give me both hands? This is going to hurt a bit.’

The gap’s small. I’d get a child out easily, but a man’s another matter. An injured man, even worse. There’s a broken bar sticking out halfway through, and pieces of the stone wall balanced on each other like some kind of toy, all set to fall at a wrong touch.

This could kill him.

‘Got you. Deep breath, Strangler. I’ll try to make it quick and clean.’

He lets out an unearthly shriek as I haul him through. I’m going to hear that sound forever, in my nightmares. Then he’s out, lying face down beside me, his chest heaving. He curses me with every foul word he knows, which I take as a good sign.

‘Got to get out,’ I tell him. ‘Up there. Now.’

‘Others,’ Strangler whispers. ‘Are they . . . ?’

‘Some out already, some . . . gone.’ I jerk my head toward the wreckage of the other cells. ‘Come on, we’ve got to move.’

‘Shit. My back.’

He can’t walk. Whatever happened, it’s hurt him too much to let him even stand for long. The roof’s pretty high. Had planned to boost him up, same as the others, then jump for the edges and haul myself after him. Change of plan needed. People shouting outside now, and it’s day. Something I haven’t seen in a long while: blue sky.

‘Just leave me the knife, Bonehead,’ says Strangler, eyeing

Slammer’s weapon, which I’ve stuck in my belt. ‘Go on, climb up, save yourself.’ And when I gape at him, he asks, ‘Your Lady get out all right?’

‘Lady, Poxy, Dribbles,’ I tell him. ‘And now you and me. Don’t argue, put your arm around my shoulders, here.’ I crouch down and lift him onto my back; he screams again. ‘Sorry, Strangler. No choice. Try and keep quiet, will you?’

‘Give me the frigging knife.

If he thinks I’m going to let him kill himself right in front of me he’s got me all wrong. I head back toward the gap with Strangler draped over me like an outsize shawl. If he can hold on long enough, maybe I can do this. Block of stone in the middle; second block on top.

‘What in the name of . . .’ groans Strangler.

‘Keep still and try not to fall off,’ I tell him, then I step up on the two blocks, with him still over my shoulders, and reach up toward the gap. Someone’s trying to open the door now, and not having any luck; no surprise, since it’s blocked by a heap of stones with a dead man underneath. I start to wonder what we’ll find outside.

‘Shit, Bonehead,’ Strangler protests, which is fair enough, since it’s pretty certain I’ll drop him when I jump.

‘Hold on,’ I say, and reach up with both hands. Not quite high enough to get a grip on the edges, but not far off. I stand on tiptoes; I’m only an inch or two short.

‘Bonehead!’ someone hisses from above. The two of them are still there, Poxy and Dribbles, and Poxy’s got a bit of rope, gods only know from where but I’m not asking questions, I’m setting Strangler back down, tying a loop around his chest and praying hard. My heart’s going crazy. Strangler’s sobbing, begging me to stop trying to save his life.

‘Now!’ I call when the knot’s done. The rope tightens; I boost Strangler up toward the hole. His screams cut through me. He can’t hold on to anything – strength all gone – but we get him up and out, and I’m left in Mathuin’s lockup with a bunch of dead men for company.

I don’t wait. I jump, hook my elbows over the side of the gap and hang there, pretty sure a big chunk of roof will break off and crash down with me attached. I take a breath, tighten my belly, think of Lady out there on her own. I pull myself up. I’m on the roof, or what’s left of it, with Strangler sprawled beside me. Poxy’s disappearing off the western side. I didn’t expect them to wait for me and they haven’t. Strangler’s face is a nasty shade of grey in the morning light. Feeling a bit the worse for wear myself.

Down below guards are milling around, but nobody’s spotted us. They’re all working on getting the door open. No sign of a storm. The sky’s cloudless, the wind’s only a breath. What’s happened is freakish. When I give myself time to think about it, this is going to scare the shits out of me.

‘Right,’ I murmur to Strangler. ‘Over that side, down the tree, then a sprint across farmland to the woods. I’ll carry you. But you have to keep quiet.’ I remember the layout pretty well; I’ve thought about getting out a lot, down there in the dark. This place is outside the walls of Mathuin’s fortress, which is up the hill behind us.

And it’s clear of the village. Nobody in a place like that wants a bunch of thieves and murderers a hop and a skip away from their little ones. Have to hope it’s too early for sentries to be up on the fortress walls, ready to pick us off with a well-aimed arrow or two.

‘Not far. Then we’ll get you some help.’

‘Hah!’ wheezes Strangler. ‘Give us the knife, I’ll help myself.’

‘Shut up. Here.’

I get him up on my back again, then go crab-wise across theroof. I try to walk soft-footed but it sounds like there’s a giant stomping around up here. The guards don’t come. We struggle down the big oak tree and stagger away across the fields, where sheep and cows take a look at us, then go on grazing. Morrigan’s curse, it’s so open out here. Feel like a mouse or a shrew, creeping from one hidey hole to the next with owls and hawks up there ready to swoop. Every shadow’s a threat; every rustle in the grass is an enemy. Strangler goes quiet. He gets heavier and heavier. But we make it into the woods. We go deep in, where the oak roots are old and tangled and the leaves grow so thick it’s all shadows. No sign of Lady. No sign of Poxy and Dribbles, either. Hope that means they all got away safe.

‘All right?’ I say to Strangler, who’s lying prone beside me.

‘Sorry I had to hurt you; only way to get you out.’

But Strangler doesn’t answer, and when I take a look at him, I see that he’s staring straight upward to the light coming through the leaves, and he’s lying with his arms out and his hands open, like a child sleeping. Only he’s not sleeping, he’s dead.



‘You disappoint me,’ my mother said.

Such directness was typical of her. My father was more likely to show his opinion of me by  lifting his brows and tightening his lips. This occurred, for instance, when I failed to show adequate enthusiasm for such activities as hunting, hawking and combat practice. I had learned to acquit myself adequately at all three; I was no fool. A future king of Dalriada must be as capable at blood sports as he was at, say, strategic thinking.

My parents had never understood my passion for poetry, my love of lore, my fondness for observing birds and animals about their natural activities, and my corresponding distaste for the business of impaling them on arrows or skewering them with spears. They saw this as a weakness in me, an unfitness for the destiny that lay before me, a destiny that was mine whether I liked it or not, since, inadequate as I might be, I was the only son they had.

‘At two-and-twenty, you might at the very least attempt to show some interest in the matter,’ Mother went on. ‘Your manner hints at something . . . not quite right. Something . . . amiss.’

‘With respect, Mother,’ I said, though my patience was wearing thin, this being a subject we had edged around many times in the past, ‘if you mean what I think you mean, you are in error.

I understand the need to father an heir, and when the right woman comes along, I will marry and procreate as you wish. If you find fault with my demeanour, it is not because I hanker after some young man, Donagan for instance, but because the notion of a strategic marriage fills me with unease. The thought that so signif-icant a matter could be decided on the basis of a formal letter from Father to some ruler in a distant kingdom, and that I might not see my bride in the flesh before she arrives for the betrothal . . . it feels deeply wrong to me.’ In the ancient tales, marriages made for purposes of power and alliance often went awry. The stories that stirred me were those of lovers who met by chance and knew at first sight that they were made for each other. A man like me might wait a lifetime for such a story.

‘You speak like a green girl of thirteen, Oran, not a grown man.Sometimes I despair of you.’

‘I know, Mother.’

‘At eighteen, Lady Flidais is perhaps a little older than is quite ideal, but in view of her pedigree we can overlook that. And there are obvious advantages to your father of an alliance with Cadhan.

His holdings may be small, but his connections are beyond reproach. I met Flidais once, when she was a child of six or seven; a charming, well-behaved little thing. Her father’s letter suggests she has retained those qualities. Cadhan describes her as exceptionally comely, accomplished in the domestic arts and of a sweet and gentle temperament, which I must say sounds rather suited to your tastes, Oran.’

‘I have read the letter, Mother.’


I suppressed a sigh. ‘Such a missive is written for one purpose only, to persuade the recipient that the woman in question is a paragon of all the virtues and has a face and figure to rival those of ancient goddesses. It’s hardly likely to say the girl is short and dumpy with pimples, and bone lazy to boot. Or that she doesn’t much care for the idea of marrying a man whom she’s never clapped eyes on. Even if that is the truth.’

‘There’s a picture.’

‘So Father mentioned. Are you suggesting a picture cannot lie just as effectively as a letter?’

‘Oran, you would madden the most patient of mothers! At least look at it.’

She reached across the table and laid the little wooden oval in front of me. Since I could hardly screw my eyes shut like a three-year-old refusing to eat his mashed turnips, I looked.

The tiny painting had been executed with great skill. Such images frequently have something of a sameness, as if the artist can conjure only one face and varies it with changes in the style of the hair, the clothing, the background. But the girl depicted here was very much herself. Her hair was worn loose, flowing down over her shoulders in waves as dark as a crow’s wing. Her eyes were a deep blue and gazed directly from the portrait, giving me an uncanny sense that she could see me. The letter had said sweet and gentle; this heart-shaped face with its small, straight nose and not-quite-smiling mouth suggested the description might not, after all, be a lie. On the girl’s lap was a tiny white dog, a deli-cate thing with spindly legs and large ears; she held it with some tenderness. The artist had chosen to show the two of them against a background of oak leaves.

‘A pretty thing,’ observed my mother. I was not sure if she meant the portrait or the girl herself. I only knew that now I held the painting in my hand I did not want to give it back to her. ‘You know, of course, that once you marry you’ll have your own house-hold; no new bride wants to be under the eye of her mother-in-law. You’ll move to Winterfalls. That should be pleasing even to you.’

I opened my mouth to say she should stop making assumptions, then shut it again. At some point I would have to give in. My parents were right: I did have to sire a son and heir, and at two-and-twenty I was past the age when a man was expected to get on with such things. What chance was there, really, that I would find the one woman who was my perfect complement, my other half, my long-dreamed-of true love? My mother had told me often enough that I had my head in the clouds. To be a dreamer at the age of ten was acceptable. At fifteen one might almost get away with it. In a man of two-and-twenty it was starting to verge on risible.

And this girl, this woman in the picture . . . There was something about her, something that went far beyond the obvious beauty, the tender pose, the artful execution of the image. Unless the artist was an exceptional dissembler, the subject of his work was a rare creature.

‘All your father is asking,’ Mother said, evidently taking my silence for a mulish refusal to listen to her wisdom, ‘is that he may reply to Lord Cadhan’s letter telling him you are interested.’

‘No,’ I said, rising to my feet. Before she could say anything I added, ‘I’ll write the letter, and it won’t be to Lord Cadhan, it will be to his daughter. As for being interested, I’ll wait until she replies before I decide that.’

I had the satisfaction of seeing my mother completely lost for words. I poured her a cup of mead from the jug on the table. Only after she had gulped down several mouthfuls did she find her voice again.

‘Your father would have to read the letter. He would need to approve it.’

‘No. It will be for no eyes but hers.’

‘I see.’ Mother’s face showed a peculiar blend of shock and hope.

‘However, I have no objection to Father writing a covering letter to Lord Cadhan; I’ll seal my own missive and give it to his scribe to enclose.’ I paused to draw breath; assessed that look on her face again and decided to press this rare advantage. ‘When Flidais’s reply comes, we’ll discuss the matter further. A condition of my agreeing to marry would be that I move to Winterfalls as soon as the decision is made. The hand-fasting would take place there.’ In my own home, on my own ground. Winterfalls, near Dreamer’s

Wood, was surrounded by forest and lake. It was a place of birds and creatures, peace and tranquillity. My heart began to race. My mind soared into a realm of dreams. This was foolish indeed; both letter and portrait were probably lies. Well, my letter would be all truth, and I’d see what Flidais made of that.

Two turnings of the moon passed before my father received Lord Cadhan’s reply; spring was turning to summer. Enclosed was a sealed message bearing this inscription: To Prince Oran of Dalriada.

Personal and Private. I took it away to my apartments unopened.

My heart was beating with such violence I wondered what would happen if these negotiations did bear fruit, and I came face to face with the woman of the portrait. I would, perhaps, drop dead from sheer excitement, proving to be the ultimate disappointment as a son.

Only once the door was closed and bolted behind me did I

break the seal and read the words within.

I do not know how to address you, she wrote , since we have never met. You have the advantage of a picture – I have seen the artist’s rendition of my features, and I believe it to be true to life – but I know only that you are two-and-twenty years of age and in excellent health.

I would have written a formal letter of the kind my father’s scribe has taught me to construct, but that would be an inadequate response to the beautiful words you sent me. My mother wanted to open your sealed message. It was only the words Personal and Private that prevented her from doing so. As it was, she sat beside me while I read it, which did rather diminish the pleasure. Later, I took your letter out of doors and read it again in the shade of my favourite oak tree, with only my little dog Bramble for company. (There is a story to Bramble’s name – don’t you find there are stories everywhere if you look for them? – but I will save that for another time.) It is odd that my mother, who believes me old enough to travel far from home, marry an unknown prince and in time, perhaps not so very much time, bear his children, was concerned that a sealed letter might contain material shocking to my tender disposition! I assured her that your missive included nothing of the kind. It was, I said to her, full of courtesy and goodwill. I did not mention the poem. That is between you and me.

What you wrote was lovely. I read it over to Bramble several times and she agrees. I would like to write my own poem in return but I confess to feeling somewhat shy about it. Perhaps next time. Will you write to me again before a final decision is made about the marriage?

I liked the description of Winterfalls. There is a forest near here where I love to walk, just me and my maid with Bramble. My little dog is very well trained and knows not to bark or run about after the wild creatures. Shy deer live there, and scampering squirrels,  frogs in the hidden ponds. I think you would like the place, Prince Oran. Perhaps Winterfalls is something similar. I hope so.

My father is writing a reply to your father. From what little he tells me, I gather we are at the stage of ‘considering’ the proposition. Do you sometimes feel as I do, as if you were a commodity to be traded? If my whole future were not in the balance, that might make me laugh.

I hope you will write again soon.

Flidais of Cloud Hill

Your letter warmed my heart, I wrote . Please take all the time you need to make up your mind. My father is so delighted that I am at last prepared to consider marriage that he will be easily persuaded to wait a little before things are quite settled. I hasten to assure you that I have no objection to the general idea of being a husband and father; only that I have read too many old tales, and they have made me wary.

I wanted to wait for the right woman. I wanted to be quite sure each of us could make the other perfectly happy, not only while we were young and hale, but through all the years of our lives.

I believe that in you I may have found that woman. I believe – you will think me foolish – I knew it the moment I saw your picture. Too many old tales, indeed. That is what my mother would say. But I spoke to Donagan, who is my body servant and friend, the brother I never had, and he said I had been wise to wait. He reminded me that I love wild creatures and am fascinated by their ways, and suggested that trusting my instincts would serve me well. So perhaps I am not so foolish.

Should agreement be reached on our marriage, I understand I would ride to Cloud Hill for the betrothal and stay on awhile. This, dear Flidais, would allow you ample opportunity to show me your forest with its scampering squirrels. I do not at present have a dog of my own – my beloved old hound, Grey, died last autumn, and thus far I have not had the heart to replace him. Perhaps you would allow me to share Bramble. If you do me the honour of agreeing to be my wife, we might in

I will tell you a secret, she wrote . Bramble is not the kind of purebred dog people expect a lady like me to own. I found her in the woods one day, entangled in blackberry bushes, her poor skin covered in bleeding scratches. She was crying most piteously. It took me and my maid some considerable time to extricate her. While we worked, Bramble was so patient and good, despite her fear. She knew that at last she had found friends in a dark world. So she was rescued and given a new name, and she has been my constant companion ever since. You will laugh at me, but I have wondered if Bramble came from the realm of the fey. Sometimes her eyes take on a particular look, as if she is gazing right out of our world and into a place I cannot see. Do you believe what some folk say, that the fey still walk the land of Erin, but only show themselves when they choose? Or do you think me foolish for giving credence to any such idea? My maid says I am fanciful, but she likes it when I tell her stories of those ancient times.

Oran, are you a tall man or short? Fat or thin? Fair-haired or dark? These things weigh nothing in the final decision, you understand. Only, I would like to know.


Nora Webster by Colm Toibin – Extract

Chapter One

‘You must be fed up of them. Will they never stop coming?’ Tom O’Connor, her neighbour, stood at his front door and looked at her, waiting for a response.

‘I know,’ she said.

‘Just don’t answer the door. That’s what I’d do.’

Nora closed the garden gate.

‘They mean well. People mean well,’ she said.

‘Night after night,’ he said. ‘I don’t know how you put up with it.’

She wondered if she could get back into the house without having to answer him again. He was using a new tone with her, a tone he would never have tried before. He was speaking as though he had some authority over her.

‘People mean well,’ she said again, but saying it this time made her feel sad, made her bite her lip to keep the tears back. When she caught Tom O’Connor’s eye, she knew that she must have appeared put down, defeated. She went into the house.

That night a knock came at almost eight o’clock. There was a fire lighting in the back room and the two boys were doing their homework at the table.

‘You answer it,’ Donal said to Conor.

‘No, you do.’

‘One of you answer it,’ she said.

Conor, the younger one, went out to the hall. She could hear a voice when he opened the door, a woman’s voice, but not one that she recognized. Conor ushered the visitor into the front room.

‘It’s the little woman who lives in Court Street,’ he whispered to her when he came into the back room.

‘Which little woman?’ she asked.

‘I don’t know.’ May Lacey shook her head sadly when Nora came into the front room.

‘Nora, I waited until now. I can’t tell you how sorry I am about Maurice.’

She reached out and held Nora’s hand.

‘And he was so young. I knew him when he was a little boy. We knew them all in Friary Street.’

‘Take off your coat and come into the back room,’ Nora said.

‘The boys are doing their exercise, but they can move in here and turn on the electric fire. They’ll be going to bed soon anyway.’

May Lacey, wisps of thin grey hair appearing from under her hat, her scarf still around her neck, sat opposite Nora in the back room and began to talk. After a while, the boys went upstairs; Conor, when Nora called him, was too shy to come down and say goodnight, but soon Donal came and sat in the room with them, carefully studying May Lacey, saying nothing.

It was clear now that no one else would call. Nora was relieved that she would not have to entertain people who did not know each other, or people who did not like each other.

‘So anyway,’ May Lacey went on, ‘Tony was in the hospital bed in Brooklyn, and didn’t this man arrive into the bed beside his, and they got talking, and Tony knew he was Irish, and he told him his wife was from the County Wexford.’

She stopped and pursed her lips, as though she were trying to remember something. Suddenly, she began to imitate a man’s voice:

‘Oh, and that’s where I’m from, the man said, and then Tony said she was from Enniscorthy; oh, and that’s where I’m from too, the man said. And he asked Tony what part of Enniscorthy she was from, and Tony said she was from Friary Street.’

May Lacey kept her eyes fixed on Nora’s face, forcing her to express interest and surprise.

‘And the man said that’s where I’m from too. Isn’t that extraordinary!’

She stopped, waiting for a reply.

‘And he told Tony that before he left the town he made that iron thing – what would you call it? – a grille or a guard on the windowsill there at Gerry Crane’s. And I went down to look at it and it’s there all right. Gerry didn’t know how it got there or when. But the man beside Tony in the bed in Brooklyn, he said that he made it, he was a welder. Isn’t that a coincidence? To happen in Brooklyn.’

Nora made tea as Donal went to bed. She brought it into the back room on a tray with biscuits and cake. When they had fussed over the tea things, May Lacey sipped her tea and began to talk again.

‘Of course, all of mine thought the world of Maurice. They always asked for him in their letters. He was friends with Jack before Jack left. And of course Maurice was a great teacher. The boys looked up to him. I always heard that said.’

Looking into the fire, Nora tried to think back, wondering if May Lacey had ever been in this house before. She thought not. She had known her all her life, like so many in the town, to greet and exchange pleasantries with, or to stop and talk to if there was news. She knew the story of her life down to her maiden name and the plot in the graveyard where she would be buried. Nora had heard her singing once at a concert, she remembered her reedy soprano – it was

‘Home, Sweet Home’ or ‘Oft in the Stilly Night’, one of those songs.

She did not think that May Lacey went out much except to the shops, or to Mass on Sundays.

They were silent now, and Nora thought that maybe May would go soon.

‘It’s nice of you to come up and see me,’ she said.

‘Oh, Nora, I was very sorry for you, but I felt I’d wait, I didn’t want to be crowding in on you.’

She refused more tea, and when Nora went to the kitchen with the tray she thought that May might stand up and put on her coat, but she did not move from the chair. Nora went upstairs and checked that the boys were asleep. She smiled to herself at the thought of going to bed herself now, falling asleep and leaving May Lacey down below, staring into the fire, waiting for her in vain.

‘Where are the girls?’ May asked as soon as Nora sat down. ‘I never see them now, they used to pass up and down all the time.’

‘Aine is in school in Bunclody. She’s settling in there now,’ Nora said. ‘And Fiona is doing her teacher training in Dublin.’

‘You’d miss them when they go away,’ May Lacey said. ‘I miss them all, I do, but it’s funny, of all of them, it’s Eily I think about most, although I miss Jack too. There was something, I don’t know, I just didn’t want to lose Eily. I thought after Rose died – you know all this, Nora – that she would come home and stay and she’d find some sort of job here, and then one day when she was just back a week or two I noticed her all quiet and it wasn’t like her, and she started to cry at the table, and that’s when we heard the news that her fellow in New York wouldn’t let her come home unless she married him. And she had married him there without telling any of us.

“Well, that’s that, Eily, then,” I said. “You’ll have to go back to him, so.” And I couldn’t face her or speak to her, and she sent me photographs of him and her together in New York, but I couldn’t look at them. They were the last thing in the world I wanted to see. But I was always sorry she didn’t stay.’

‘Yes, I was sorry to hear that she went back, but maybe she’s happy there,’ Nora said and immediately wondered, as May Lacey looked down sadly, a hurt expression on her face, if that was a wrong thing to say.

May Lacey began to rummage in her handbag. She put on a pair of reading glasses.

‘I thought I’d brought Jack’s letter but I must have left it behind,’ she said.

She examined a piece of paper and then another.

‘No, I haven’t got it. I wanted to show it to you. There was something he wanted to ask you.’

Nora said nothing. She had not seen Jack Lacey for more than twenty years.

‘Maybe I’ll find the letter and send it to you,’ May said.

She stood up to go.

‘I don’t think he’s going to come home now,’ she said as she put on her coat. ‘What would he do here? They have their life there in Birmingham, and they’ve invited me over and everything, but I told Jack I’d be happy to go to my reward without seeing England. I think though he’d like to have something here, a place he could visit and maybe Eily’s children or some of the others.’

‘Well, he has you to visit,’ Nora said.

‘He thought you’d be selling Cush,’ May said, settling her scarf.

She spoke as though it were nothing, but now, as she looked at Nora, her gaze was hard and concentrated and her chin began to tremble.

‘He asked me if you’d be selling it,’ she said and closed her mouth firmly.

‘I’ve made no plans,’ Nora said.

May pursed her lips again. She did not move.

‘I wish I’d brought the letter,’ she said. ‘Jack always loved Cush and Ballyconnigar. He used to go with Maurice and the others, and he always remembered it. And it hasn’t changed much, everyone there would know him. The last time he came home he didn’t know half the people in the town.’

Nora said nothing. She wanted May to leave.

‘I’ll tell him I mentioned it to you anyway. That’s all I can do.’

When Nora did not reply, May looked at her, clearly annoyed at her silence. They walked out and stood in the hall.

‘Time is the great healer, Nora. That’s all I can tell you. And I can tell you that from experience.’

She sighed as Nora opened the front door.

‘Thank you for calling up, May,’ Nora said.

‘Goodnight now, Nora, and look after yourself.’

Nora watched her as she made her way slowly down along the footpath towards home.

She drove to Cush in the old Austin A40 one Saturday that October, leaving the boys playing with friends and telling no one where she was going. Her aim in those months, autumn leading to winter, was to manage for the boys’ sake and maybe her own sake too to hold back tears. Her crying as though for no reason frightened the boys and disturbed them as they gradually became used to their father not being there. She realized now that they had come to behave as if everything were normal, as if nothing were really missing. They had learned to disguise how they felt. She, in turn, had learned to recognize danger signs, thoughts that would lead to other thoughts.

She measured her success with the boys by how much she could control her feelings.

As she drove down the hill outside The Ballagh and caught her first glimpse of the sea, it occurred to her that she had never been alone before on this road. In all the years, one of the boys, or the girls when they were younger, would shout out, ‘I can see the sea!’ just here and she would have to make them sit down and quieten.

In Blackwater, she thought of stopping for cigarettes or chocolate or anything to postpone her arrival at Cush. But she was sure that someone she knew would see her and want to sympathize with her.

The words came easily: ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘I’m sorry for your trouble.’

They all said the same thing, but there was no formula for replying.

‘I know’ or ‘Thank you’ sounded cold, almost hollow. And they would stand looking at her until she could not wait to get away from them. There was something hungry in the way they held her hand or looked into her eyes. She wondered if she had ever done this to anybody, and thought that she had not. As she turned right towards Ballyconnigar she realized that she would feel much worse if people began to avoid her. It struck her that they were probably doing so, but she had not noticed.

The sky had darkened now and drops of rain hit the windscreen.

It seemed much barer here, more wintry than the countryside on the road to Blackwater. She turned left at the handball alley for Cush and she allowed herself the brief respite of imagining that this was some time in the recent past, a dark summer’s day with a threatening sky and she had gone into Blackwater for meat and bread and a news paper. She had thrown them lightly on the back seat, and the family were all in the house beside the marl­pond, Maurice and the children, and maybe one or two friends with them, and the children had slept late, and they would be disappointed now that the sun was not shining, but it wouldn’t stop them playing rounders or messing in front of the house or going to the strand. But if the rain was down for the day, of course, they’d stay in and play cards until the two boys would grow irritable and come to her to complain.

She let herself imagine all of this for as long as she liked. But as soon as she caught a view of the sea and the horizon beyond Corrigans’ roof, such imaginings were no use to her, she was back in the hard world again.

She drove the car down the lane and unlocked the large galvanized gates. She parked in front of the house and closed the gates again so that no one could see the car. She would have loved it had one of her old friends been here, Carmel Redmond or Lily Devereux, who could talk to her sensibly not about what she had lost or how sorry they were, but about the children, money, part­time work, how to live now. They would have listened to her. But Carmel lived in Dublin and came only in the summer and Lily just came from time to time to see her mother.

Nora sat back into the car as the wind from the sea howled around her. The house would be cold. She should have taken a heavier coat with her. She knew that wishing friends were here or allowing herself to shiver in the car like this were ways of postponing the moment when she would have to open the door and walk into the empty house.

And then an even fiercer whistling wind blew up and seemed as though it would lift the car. Something she had not allowed herself to think before but had known for some days now came into her mind and she made a promise to herself. She would not come here again. This was the last time she would visit this house. She would go in now and walk through these few rooms. She would take with her whatever was personal and could not be left behind, and then she would close this door and drive back to the town, and, in future, she would never take that turn at the handball alley on the road between Blackwater and Ballyconnigar.

What surprised her was the hardness of her resolve, how easy it seemed to turn her back on what she had loved, leave this house on the lane to the cliff for others to know, for others to come to in the summer and fill with different noises. As she sat looking out at the bruised sky over the sea, she sighed. Finally, she let herself feel how much she had lost, how much she would miss. She got out of the car, steadying herself against the wind.

The front door opened on to a tiny hall. There were two rooms on each side, the rooms on the left with bunk beds, a living room on the right with a tiny kitchen and bathroom behind it, and their room beside it, peaceful, away from the children.

Each year in early June they came here, all of them, on a Saturday and Sunday, even if the weather was not good. They brought scrubbing brushes and mops and detergent and cloths for cleaning windows. They brought mattresses that had been well aired. It was a turning point, a mark on the calendar that meant the beginning of summer, even if summer was going to be grey and misty. The children, in the years she wanted to remember now, were noisy and excited at the start, as though they were an American family from The Donna Reed Show. They imitated American accents and gave each other instructions, but they soon grew tired and bored and she let them play or go down to the strand or walk into the village. And this was when the serious work began. When the children were out of the way, Maurice could do things like paint the woodwork, use distemper on the cement; the lino on a floor could be covered in the places where there were holes and she could patch the wallpaper where there was mould or too many stains, and for this she would need silence and concentration. She enjoyed measuring down to the last fraction of an inch, making the paste to the right consistency, and cutting up bright new patches of wallpaper in floral patterns.

Fiona hated spiders. That was something Nora remembered

now. And cleaning the house meant, more than anything, displacing spiders and clocks and all types of creepy­crawlies. The boys loved Fiona screaming, and Fiona herself enjoyed screaming too, especially as her father would protect her with elaborate gestures.

‘Where is it?’ he would shout, mimicking the giant in ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’, and Fiona would run to him and hold him.

That was the past, then, she thought as she walked into the living room, and it cannot be rescued. The smallness and coldness of the room gave her an odd satisfaction now. There was clearly a leak in the galvanized tin roof because there was a fresh stain on the ceiling. The house rattled as a gust of wind brought a hard sheet of rain against the glass. The windows would have to be repaired soon, and the wood had begun to rot. And who knew how long it would take for the cliff to be eaten away as far back as here and their house to be dismantled on the orders of the County Council? Someone else could worry now. Someone else could repair the leaks and treat the walls for damp. Someone else could rewire and repaint this house, or abandon it to the elements when the time came.

She would sell it to Jack Lacey. Nobody who lived locally would want to buy it; they knew what a bad investment it would be, compared to houses in Bentley or Curracloe or Morriscastle. No one from Dublin who saw the house in this state would make an offer for it. She looked around the room and shuddered.

She walked into the children’s bedrooms and into their own bedroom, and she knew that for Jack Lacey in Birmingham owning this would be a dream, part of a memory of scorching hot Sundays, and boys and girls on bicycles, and bright, open possibilities. On the other hand, she imagined him coming into the house in a year or two, when he was back for a fortnight in Ireland, with the ceiling half fallen in and cobwebs everywhere and the wallpaper peeling and the windows broken and the electricity cut off. And the summer’s day all drizzly and dark.

She looked through drawers, but there was nothing that she wanted. Only yellow newspaper and bits of twine. Even the crockery and kitchen utensils seemed not worth taking home. In the bedroom, she found some photographs and some books in a locker and she gathered these to take with her. Nothing else. The furniture was worthless, the lightshades were already dingy and worn. She remembered buying them in Woolworth’s in Wexford only a few years earlier. Everything rotted and faded in this house.

The rain began to pour down. She took a mirror from the bedroom wall, noting how clean the space it covered had remained, compared to the discoloured, dirty wallpaper all around.

At first she thought the knocking she heard was something banging against the door or the window in the wind. But when it persisted and she heard a voice, she realized that she had a visitor. She was surprised because she had thought that no one had noticed her approach and no one could see the car. Her first instinct was to hide, but she knew that she had already been seen.

As she opened the latch, the front door blew in towards her. The figure outside was wearing an oversized anorak, the large hood of which was half­covering the face.

‘Nora, I heard the car. Are you all right?’

Once the hood was pulled down, she recognized Mrs Darcy, whom she had not seen since the funeral. Mrs Darcy followed her inside as she closed the door.

‘Why didn’t you call in first?’ she asked.

‘I’m just here for a few minutes,’ Nora said.

‘Get into the car and come on up to the house. You can’t stay here.’

Once more she noted the hectoring tone, as though she were a child, unable to make proper decisions. She had tried since the funeral to ignore this tone, or tolerate it. She had tried to understand that it was shorthand for kindness.

Just now, she would have relished taking her few possessions from the house, putting them in the car and driving out of Cush.

But it could not be done, she would have to accept Mrs Darcy’s hospitality.

Mrs Darcy would not get into the car with her, insisting that she was too wet. She would walk back to her house, while Nora drove, she said.

‘I’ll be a few more minutes. I’ll follow you up,’ Nora said.

Mrs Darcy looked at her, puzzled. Nora had tried to sound casual, but she had succeeded instead in sounding secretive.

‘I just want to collect a few things to bring home,’ she said.

Her visitor’s eyes lit on the books and photographs and the mirror resting against the wall, then she swiftly took in everything else in the room. And Nora felt that Mrs Darcy understood immediately what she was doing.

‘Don’t be long now,’ she said. ‘I’ll have the tea ready for you.’

When Mrs Darcy had left, Nora closed the door and went back into the house.

It was done. In her all­embracing glance around the room, Mrs Darcy had made it seem real. Nora would leave this house and never come back. She would never walk these lanes again and she would let herself feel no regret. It was over. She took up the few things she had collected and put them in the boot of the car.

Mrs Darcy’s kitchen was warm. She put fresh scones on a plate with melting butter and poured the tea.

‘We were wondering how you were getting on but Bill Parle told us the night he went in that your house was full of people. Maybe we should have gone in all the same, but we thought we’d leave it until after Christmas when you might like the company more.’

‘There have been a lot of visitors,’ Nora said. ‘But you know you’re welcome any time.’

‘Well, there are a lot of people who are very fond of you,’ Mrs Darcy said.

She took off her apron and sat down.

‘And we were all worried about you, that you wouldn’t come down here any more. Carmel Redmond, you know, was away when it happened and she was shocked.’

‘I know. She wrote to me,’ Nora said, ‘and then she called in.’

‘So she told us,’ Mrs Darcy said, ‘and Lily was here that day and she said that we should be looking out for you. And I used to wait for that day when you’d all come down and do up the house. For me, it was the beginning of the fine weather. My heart would lift when I’d see you coming.’

‘I remember one year,’ Nora said, ‘it was raining so hard you took pity on us and made us all come up here for our tea.’

‘And you know,’ Mrs Darcy said, ‘your children have the best manners. They are so well reared. Aine used to love coming to see us. All of them did, but she was the one we knew best. And Maurice used to come on a Sunday if there was a match on the wireless.’

Nora looked out at the rain. It was tempting now to mislead Mrs Darcy, to tell her that they were going to keep coming down here, but she could not do that. And she felt that Mrs Darcy understood her silence, had been watching for some clue, something said or left unsaid, to confirm her impression that Nora was going to sell the house.

‘Now, what we decided,’ Mrs Darcy said, ‘was that next year we’d do up the house for you. I was looking at it just now, and it could do with some patching on the galvanize, and we’ll be getting that done on the barn here anyway, and so they might as well go down to you.

And we’ll take turns to do the rest of it. I have a key, and we could have surprised you, but Lily said that I was to ask you, and I was going to do that after Christmas. She said it was your house, and we shouldn’t be intruding.’

Nora knew that she should tell her now, but there was something too effusive and warm in Mrs Darcy’s tone that stopped her.

‘But I thought it would be nice for you,’ Mrs Darcy went on, ‘to come down and have it all done. So don’t say anything now, but let me know if you don’t want us to do it. And I’ll hold on to the key unless you want it back.’

‘No. Of course not, Mrs Darcy. I’d like you to hold on to the key.’

Maybe, she thought as she drove towards Blackwater, maybe Mrs Darcy had presumed all along that she was going to sell the house, and realized that cleaning it up would increase its value; or maybe Mrs Darcy had presumed nothing, maybe Nora herself was watching everyone too closely to see what they thought of her. But she knew she had behaved strangely in closing the gates when she had parked the car in front of the house, in seeming almost furtive when Mrs Darcy called, and in not instantly accepting or turning down her offer to help with the house.

She sighed. It had been awkward and difficult, and now it was finished. She would write to Mrs Darcy and Lily Devereux and Carmel Redmond. Often in the past, when she made a decision like this, she changed her mind the next morning, but this time it was not like that, she would not change her mind.

On the road back to Enniscorthy, she began to calculate. She did not know how much the house was worth. She would think of a figure and send it to Jack Lacey in a sealed envelope – she did not want to negotiate with May Lacey – and if he offered less than she asked for, she would accept it as long as it was reasonable. She did not want to have to advertise the house in the newspaper.

The car was taxed and insured until Christmas. She had planned to give it up then, but if she sold the house, she thought, she would keep the car or buy a newer model. The house money would also pay for the black marble gravestone for Maurice that she wanted, and she would be able to rent a caravan in Curracloe for a week or two next summer. With what she had left she could use for household expenses and buy some new clothes for herself and the girls.

And then keep something for an emergency.

The house, she smiled to herself, would become like the two and sixpence a man had given Conor a few summers earlier. She could not remember which summer it was, but it was before his father was sick and it was before he really understood the value of money.

Conor had given the two and sixpence to Maurice to mind for him and then all summer, every time they went to Blackwater, he drew on this money, confidently demanding a fresh instalment from his father. When they told him it was all gone, he had refused to believe them.

She wrote to May Lacey, enclosing a letter for Jack. Within a short time, she had a letter from him agreeing to the price she had suggested. She replied with the name of a solicitor in the town who would draw up the contract of sale.

She waited for the right moment to tell the boys about selling the house in Cush, and when she began, she was shocked at how concerned they both seemed, how attentive, as though by listening carefully they might hear something that would have a serious effect on their future. As she spoke to them about how useful the money would be, she learned that they already knew that she had planned to sell the car, although she had not told them this. They did not smile, or even appear relieved, when she said that they were going to keep the car.

‘Will we still be able to go to the university?’ Conor asked.

‘Of course,’ she said. ‘What made you think about that?’

‘Who will pay?’

‘I have other money saved up for that.’

She did not want to say that maybe their Uncle Jim and Aunt Margaret would pay. They were Maurice’s brother and sister who had not married and lived together in the old family house in the town. The boys remained absolutely still; they watched her intently.

She went out to the kitchen and turned on the kettle and when she came back into the room, they had not moved.

‘We’ll be able to go on holidays to different places,’ she said.

‘We’ll be able to get a caravan in Curracloe or Rosslare. We’ve never stayed in a caravan.’

‘Would we be able to stay in Curracloe the same time as the Mitchells?’ Conor asked.

‘If we like. We could find out when they’re going and go at the same time.’

‘Would it be for one week or two weeks?’ Conor asked.

‘Or longer if we liked,’ she said.

‘Are we going to b­buy a c­caravan?’ Donal asked.

‘No, we’ll rent one. Buying one would be too much responsibility.’

‘Who’s going to b­buy the house?’ Donal asked.

‘It’s very private now. If I tell you, you can’t tell anyone, but I think that May Lacey’s son is going to buy it, you know, the one in England.’

‘Is that why she came here?’

‘I suppose it is, yes.’

She made tea and the boys pretended to watch the television. She had, she knew, unsettled them. Conor had become all red­faced and Donal was staring at the floor as if awaiting punishment. She picked up a newspaper and tried to read. She knew it was important to stay in the room, not to leave them, despite an urge to go upstairs and do anything, empty out cupboards, wash her face, clean the windows.

Eventually, she felt she would have to say something.

‘We could go to Dublin next week.’

They looked up.

‘Why?’ Donal asked.

‘For a day out, you could take a day off school,’ she said.

‘I have d­double Science on Wednesday,’ Donal said. ‘I hate it, but I c­can’t miss it, and I have F­french with Madame D­duffy on Monday.’

‘We could go on Thursday.’

‘In the car?’

‘No, we could go on the train. And we could see Fiona, that’s her half­day.’

‘Do we have to go?’ Conor asked.

‘No. We’ll only go if we like,’ she said.

‘What will we tell the school?’

‘I’ll send in a note saying that you have to go to the doctor.’

‘I d­don’t need a note if it’s j­just one day,’ Donal said.

‘We’ll go then. We’ll have a nice day out. I’ll write to Fiona.’

She had said it to break the silence and to let them know that there would always be outings, things to look forward to. But it made no difference to them. The news that she was selling the house in Cush seemed to bring home something that they had been managing not to think about. In the days that followed, however, they brightened up again, as though nothing had been said.

For the trip to Dublin she laid their good clothes out for them the night before and made them polish their shoes and leave them on the landing. When she tried to make them go to bed early, they protested that there was something they wanted to watch on the television, and she allowed them to stay up late. Even then, they did not want to go to bed, and when she insisted, they went back and forth to the bathroom and they kept turning on and off the light in their room.

Finally, she went upstairs and found them fast asleep, the bedroom door wide open, their beds tossed. She tried to make them more comfortable, but when Conor began to wake she withdrew, quietly closing the door.

In the morning, they were up and dressed before she was. They brought her tea, which was too strong, and toast. When she got up, she managed to throw the tea down the sink in the bathroom without them noticing.

It was cold. They would drive to the station, she told them, and leave the car in the Railway Square. It would be handy when they came home that night, she said. They both nodded gravely. They already had their coats on.

The town was almost empty as she drove to the station. It was half­dark and some lights in houses were still on.

‘Which side of the train will we sit on?’ Conor asked when they got to the station.

They were twenty minutes early. She had bought the tickets, but Conor refused to sit with her and Donal in the heated waiting room, he wanted to cross over the iron bridge and wave to them from the other side; he wanted to walk down to the signal box.

Again and again, he came back to ask when the train would arrive until a man told him to watch the signal arm between the platform and the tunnel, and when it dropped, it would mean that the train was coming.

‘But we know it’s coming,’ Conor said impatiently.

‘It’ll drop when the train is in the tunnel,’ the man said.

‘If you were in the tunnel and the train came, you’d be mincemeat,’ Conor said.

‘Begoboman, you’d be found in little bits all right. And, you know something, all the cups and saucers rattle in the houses when the train goes under,’ the man said.

‘They don’t rattle in our house.’

‘That’s because the train doesn’t go under your house.’

‘How do you know?’ Conor said.

‘Oh, I know your mammy well.’

Nora recognized the man, as she did so many others in the town; she thought that he worked in Donoghue’s garage, but she was not sure. Something in his manner irritated her. She hoped that he did not intend to travel to Dublin with them.

Just before the train came, and the boys had once more gone down to the signal box, the man turned to her.

‘I’d say they miss their daddy all the same,’ he said.

He searched her face for a response and narrowed his eyes with curiosity. She felt that she needed to say something quickly and sharply to prevent him from speaking again and, more than anything, to prevent him from sitting with them on the journey.

‘That’s the last thing they need to hear at the moment, thank you,’ she said.

‘Oh, now, I didn’t mean to . . .’

She moved away from him as the train came and the boys ran excitedly down the platform towards her. She could feel her face reddening, but they noticed nothing as they argued over which were the best seats on the train.

Once the train started, they wanted everything: to view the toilets, to stand in the precarious space between the carriages where the ground could be seen as they sped along, to go to the restaurant and buy lemonade. By the time the train stopped in Ferns, they had done all of these things, and by the time it reached Camolin, they had fallen asleep.

Nora did not sleep; she glanced at the newspaper she had bought in the station, and put it down, and watched the two boys slumped back in their seats sleeping. She would love to have known just then what they were dreaming of. In these months, she realized, something had changed in the clear, easy connection between her and them, and perhaps, for them, between each other. She felt that she would never be sure about them again.

Conor woke and looked at her and went back to sleep with his head resting on his folded arms on the table. She reached out and touched his hair, let her hands run through it, tossing it and straightening it again. Donal was watching her, his calm gaze suggesting to her that he understood everything that was happening, that there was nothing he did not fathom.

‘Conor’s fast asleep,’ she said and smiled.

‘Where are we?’ he asked.

‘We’re nearly at Arklow.’

By Wicklow, Conor had woken and gone to the toilet again.

‘What would happen if you flushed the toilet in a station?’ he asked.

‘It would all go on to the tracks,’ she said.

‘And when the train is moving, where does it go?’

‘We’ll ask the ticket collector,’ she said.

‘I b­bet you wouldn’t ask him,’ Donal said.

‘What harm would it do to the tracks in a station?’ Conor asked.

‘It would be all s­smelly,’ Donal said.

The morning was windless, the clouds on the horizon were grey and the sea beyond Wicklow the colour of steel.

‘When will the tunnels start?’ Conor asked.

‘It’s a while now,’ she said.

‘After the next station?’

‘Yes, after Greystones.’

‘Will that be long?’

‘Read your comic,’ she suggested.

‘The tracks are too bumpy.’

At the first tunnel, the boys covered their ears against the rushing noise, vying with each other in mock fright. The next tunnel was much longer. Conor wanted Nora to cover her ears as well, and she did it to please him, because she knew how little sleep he had had, and how irritable he could be, and how easy it would be to upset him. Donal was already bored covering his ears, but he moved close to the window when the train came out of the tunnel and there was a sheer drop into the rough waters below. Conor now had moved beside her, making her move so he could be at the window too.

‘We could fall over,’ he said.

‘No, no, the train has to stay on the tracks. It’s not like a car,’ she said.

He kept his nose up against the window, fascinated by the danger.

Donal, also, did not move from the window even when the train came into Dún Laoghaire station.

‘Is that the end?’ Conor asked.

‘We’re nearly there,’ she said.

‘Where are we going to go first? Are we going to see Fiona first?’

‘We’re going to go to Henry Street.’

‘Yippee!’ Conor shouted. He was trying to stand on the seat, but she made him sit down.

‘And we’re going to have our dinner in Woolworth’s,’ she said.

‘In the self­service?’

‘Yes, so we don’t have to wait.’

‘Can I have orange with my dinner and no milk?’ Conor asked.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘You can have whatever you like.’

They got off at Amiens Street and walked through the damp and dilapidated station. They moved slowly along Talbot Street, stopping to look into shop windows. She forced herself to relax, there was nothing to do, they could waste time wherever they wanted.

She gave them ten shillings each to spend, but as soon as she did, she felt she had made a mistake, it was too much. They examined the money and looked at her suspiciously.

‘Do we have to b­buy something?’ Donal asked.

‘Maybe we’ll get some books,’ she said.

‘Can we get comics or an annual?’ Conor asked.

‘It’s too early for annuals,’ Donal said.

As they approached O’Connell Street, they wanted to see where Nelson’s Pillar had been.

‘I remember it,’ Conor said.

‘You c­couldn’t. You’re too young,’ Donal told him.

‘I do. It was tall and Nelson was on top of it and they blew him into smithereens.’

They crossed O’Connell Street, alert to the several lanes of traffic, cautiously waiting for the lights to change. Nora was aware as they walked into Henry Street that they must seem like country people. The boys managed to take everything in and, at the same time, keep everything at a distance. They watched this world of strangers and strange buildings out of the sides of their eyes.

Conor had become impatient to go into a shop, any shop, to buy something.

‘Would you like to look at shoes?’ she asked, figuring that when he said no, he would be pleased that he was the one who was deciding where they would go.

‘Shoes?’ He wrinkled his face in disgust. ‘Is that what we came to Dublin for?’

‘So where do you want to go?’ she asked.

‘I want to go up and down an escalator.’

‘Do you want to do that too?’ she asked Donal.

‘I s­suppose s­so,’ he said glumly.

In Arnott’s in Henry Street, Conor wanted Nora and Donal to watch him going up the escalator and then wait for him and watch him coming down. He insisted that they not come with him and not move. He made them promise. Donal was bored.

The first time, Conor kept looking back at them, and they waited while he disappeared at the top and then reappeared on the escalator coming down. He beamed at them. The second time, he grew brave and took some of the steps two by two, all the while holding on to the rail. The next time, he wanted Donal to come with him, but insisted that Nora still wait below. She explained to him that this would have to be the last go, that maybe they could return here in the afternoon, but three times up and down the escalator was enough.

When they came down, she saw that Donal was animated as well. They explained to her that they had found a lift further over and they wanted to go up and down in that.

‘One more and that’s it,’ she said.

She moved away and began to look at umbrellas, noticing fold­up ones, small enough to put into your handbag, which she had never seen before. She thought that she would buy one in case it rained.

As she waited for the cashier, she watched out for the boys, but they did not appear. When she had paid, she walked back to their meeting point, and then to the place near a side door to which the lift descended.

They were not there. She waited between the two points, looking out all the time for them. She thought of going on the lift herself, but realized that this would only add to the confusion. If she stayed here, she thought, she would be bound to see them.

When they found her, they pretended it was nothing, that the lift had merely stopped at every floor. When she told them that she had thought they were lost, they gave each other a look as though something had happened to them in the lift that they did not want her to know about.

By three o’clock, they had seen all the Dublin they wanted to see.

They had been to Moore Street and bought a bag of peaches, they had had their dinner in the self­service in Woolworth’s and had been to Eason’s where they bought comics and books. The boys were tired now as they sat in Bewley’s waiting for Fiona. Nora believed that the only thing keeping Conor awake was the idea that you could take as many buns as you liked from the two­tiered plate.

‘You have to pay for them,’ Nora said.

‘How do they know how many you’ve taken?’

‘Most people are honest,’ she said.

When Fiona arrived the boys became excited and bright again, both wanting to talk at the same time. To Nora, Fiona appeared thin and pale as she sat opposite her.

‘Do you want to hear a D­dublin accent?’ Donal asked her.

‘We were in Moore Street,’ Nora said.

‘Get the ripe peaches,’ Donal said in a singsong voice without a stammer.

‘Look at my “buke”,’ Conor added.

‘Very funny,’ Fiona said. ‘I’m sorry I’m late, the buses all come in twos and threes and then you have to wait for ages for the next one.’

‘I want to go upstairs on a double­decker bus,’ Conor said.

‘Conor, let Fiona talk for one second and then you can talk,’ Nora said.

‘Are you having a nice day out?’ Fiona asked.

Fiona’s smile was shy, but her tone was adult and confident. She had changed in these few months.

‘Yes, but we’re all tired now and it’s nice to be sitting here.’

Neither of them seemed to know what to say next. Nora realized that her answer to the question had been too formal, as though she were talking to a stranger. Fiona ordered coffee.

‘Did you buy anything?’ she asked.

‘I didn’t really have time,’ Nora said. ‘I got a paperback, that’s all.’

Nora noticed how briskly and efficiently Fiona had ordered the coffee, and how she looked around the café, her eyes sharp, almost critical. As she began to talk to her brothers, however, she became almost girlish again.

‘Have you heard from Aine?’ Nora asked her.

‘She wrote me a short letter. I think she was worried that the nuns read letters and she’s right, they do. So she didn’t say too much. Just that she likes the Irish teacher and got good marks in French for a composition.’

‘We can go and see her in a week.’

‘She mentioned that.’

‘We’re selling the house,’ Conor said to Fiona suddenly in a loud voice.

‘And are you going to live on the side of the road?’ she asked, laughing.

‘No, we’re going to rent a caravan in Curracloe,’ he said.

Fiona looked at Nora.

‘I’m thinking of selling the house in Cush,’ Nora said.

‘I wondered about that,’ Fiona replied.

‘I didn’t decide until recently.’

‘So you are going to sell it?’

‘Yes, I am.’

Nora was surprised to see that while Fiona was trying to smile, there were tears in her eyes. She had not cried at Maurice’s funeral, just remained silent, staying close to her sister and her aunts, but Nora could sense what she felt all the more because she did nothing to show it. Nora did not know what she should say to her now.

She sipped her coffee. The boys did not move or speak.

‘Does Aine know?’ Fiona asked.

‘I didn’t have the heart to tell her in a letter. I’ll tell her when we see her.’

‘And you’ve definitely decided?’

Nora did not reply.

‘I was hoping to go there in the summer,’ Fiona said.

‘I thought you were going to England in the summer.’

‘I am, at the end of June, but I finish at the end of May. I’d thought about spending the month of June in Cush.’

‘I’m sorry,’ Nora said.

‘He loved that house, didn’t he?’

‘Your father?’

Fiona lowered her head. Nora brought Conor with her to find the toilets. When she came back she ordered another coffee.

‘Who are you selling the house to?’ Fiona asked.

‘Jack Lacey, May Lacey’s son, who’s in England.’

‘May Lacey came to the house,’ Conor interrupted.

Donal nudged him and put his finger to his lips.

‘The money will come in very handy just now,’ Nora said.

‘In two years’ time, I’ll be earning a salary,’ Fiona said.

‘We need the money now,’ Nora said.

‘Are you not going to get a pension?’ Fiona asked. ‘Has that not come through?’

Nora thought that maybe she should not have said that she needed the money.

‘It means we won’t have to sell the car,’ Nora said and tried to indicate to Fiona that maybe they should not worry the boys with any more talk about money.

‘We had lovely summers there,’ Fiona said.

‘I know.’

‘It’s sad to think of losing it.’

‘We’ll go other places on holiday.’

‘I thought we’d always have that house,’ Fiona said.

They said nothing for a few moments. Nora wanted to go, take the boys back to Henry Street.

‘When are you going to sell it?’ Fiona resumed.

‘As soon as the contract is ready.’

‘Aine will be upset.’

Nora stopped herself saying that she couldn’t bear to go there any more. She would not be able to say that in front of the boys; it would sound too emotional, it would give too much away.

She stood up to go.

‘How do you pay here? I can’t remember.’

‘You have to get the waitress to fill out a docket,’ Fiona said.

‘And you have to tell her how many b­buns you’ve had,’ Donal said.

When they walked out to Westmoreland Street, Nora wanted to say something else to Fiona but she could not think what. Fiona 23

seemed downcast as she stood on the street. For a moment, Nora felt impatient with her. She was starting her life, she could live where she liked, do what she liked. She did not have to get the train back to the town where everybody knew about her and all the years ahead were mapped out for her.

‘We’re going to walk around to Henry Street by the Ha’penny Bridge,’ Nora said.

‘Make sure you don’t miss the train,’ Fiona said.

‘How are you getting back to the college?’ Nora asked.

‘I was going to go to Grafton Street first.’

‘Will you not come to the station with us?’ Nora asked.

‘No, I’ll go,’ Fiona said. ‘I have to get something before I go back and I won’t be in the city centre again for a while.’

As they looked at one another, Nora felt Fiona was hostile, and forced herself to remember how upset she must be, and how lonely she might be too. She smiled as she said that they would have to go and in return Fiona smiled at her and at the boys. As soon as Nora walked away, however, she felt helpless and regretted not having said something kind or special or consoling to Fiona before they left her; maybe even something as simple as asking her when she was coming down next, or emphasizing how much they looked forward to seeing her soon. She wished she had a phone in the house so she could keep in more regular touch with her. She thought that she might write Fiona a note in the morning thanking her for coming to meet them.

In Talbot Street, on the way to the station, Conor spent the rest of his money on Lego, but could not decide which colour bricks to choose. Although Nora was tired, she listened, paid attention and offered suggestions as Donal stood apart from them. She smiled at the cashier as Conor changed his mind at the cash register and went back to exchange one box of Lego for another.

It was dark now and becoming cold. They sat on broken plastic seats in the small café of the station. When Nora reached into her shopping bag to find her purse, she discovered that the peaches that had seemed so fresh and firm just a few hours before had become all soggy. The paper bag had split open. She dumped them in a rubbish 24

bin, knowing that there was no point in trying to take them any further, they would only rot more in the train.

The boys had not realized that it would be dark for the trip home, and as the train began the journey south, the window was covered in condensation. They opened the Lego and Conor played with it while Donal read. After a while, Conor moved over to her side of the table and fell asleep against her. She noticed as she looked across at Donal how oddly adult he seemed as he turned a page of his book.

‘We’re going to school t­tomorrow, aren’t we?’ he asked.

‘Oh, yes, I think you should,’ she said.

He nodded and looked back at his book.

‘When is F­fiona coming d­down next?’ he asked.

Her words with Fiona in the café, she knew, would work quietly on his mind. She wondered if there was one thing she could say that would stop him worrying and brooding over this.

‘You know, Fiona will love the caravan,’ she said.

‘She d­didn’t s­sound like that,’ he said.

‘Donal, we have to start a new life,’ she said.

He considered her statement for a moment, as though he had a complex piece of homework in front of him. And then he shrugged his shoulders and went back to reading his book.

Nora gently moved Conor aside while she took off her coat in the overheated train. He woke for a second, but did not even open his eyes. She made a note that she must ask about caravans in Curracloe.

In her mind, she stood in the house in Cush again, and she tried to picture the children on a summer’s day, taking their togs and towels from the line and going down to the strand, or herself and Maurice walking home along the lanes at dusk trying to keep the swarms of midges at bay, and coming into the house to the sound of children playing cards. It was all over and would not come back. The house lay empty. She pictured the small rooms in the darkness, how miserable they would be. Inhospitable. She imagined the sound of rain on the galvanized roof, the doors and windows rattling in the wind, the bare bedframes, the insects lurking in the dark crevices, and the relentless sea.

As the train made its way towards Enniscorthy, she felt that the house at Cush was more desolate now than it ever had been.

When Conor woke, he looked around him and smiled at her sleepily. He stretched and lay against her.

‘Are we nearly home?’ he asked.

‘Not long now,’ she said.

‘When we stay in Curracloe,’ he asked, ‘are we going to put the caravan near the Winning Post or are we going to the caravan park up the hill?’

‘Oh, near the Winning Post,’ she said.

She knew she had answered too quickly. Donal and Conor earnestly considered what she had said. Then Conor glanced at Donal, watching for his reaction.

‘Is that d­definite?’ Donal asked. As the train slowed down, she managed to laugh for the first time all day.

‘Definite? Of course it’s definite.’

When the train shuddered to a stop, they gathered up their belongings quickly. As they made their way to the door, they met the ticket collector.

‘Ask him now about the t­toilets,’ Donal whispered as he nudged her.

‘I’ll tell him that you’re the one who wants to know,’ she said.

‘Would this sausage like to come to Rosslare with us?’ the inspector asked.

‘Oh, no, he has to go to school tomorrow,’ Nora said.

‘I’m not a sausage,’ Conor said.

The inspector laughed.

As she drove out of the Railway Square she remembered something, and she found herself telling the boys what had come into her mind.

‘It was when we were married first, and it must have been during the summer holidays, and didn’t we drive to the station one morning to find that we had missed the train by one second. It was gone and, God, we were very disappointed. But the man in charge that morning was not the usual station master, he was a young fellow, and he was taught in school by your daddy, and he told us to get back into the car and drive to Ferns and he would have the train held for us there. It was only six or seven miles away, and that’s how we caught the train that morning and that’s how we got to Dublin.’

‘Did you d­drive or d­did he d­drive?’ Donal asked.

‘Daddy drove.’

‘He must have driven queer fast,’ Conor said.

‘Was he a better d­driver than you?’ Donal asked.

She smiled as she answered him.

‘He was a good driver. Do you not remember?’

‘I remember once he d­drove over a rat,’ Donal said.

The streets of the town were empty and there were no other cars. The two boys seemed alert now, ready to talk more, ask more questions. When they got home, she thought, she would light the fire, and they would tire quickly after the long day.

‘But why didn’t you just d­drive to D­dublin that d­day and forget the t­train?’ Donal asked.

‘I don’t know, Donal,’ she said. ‘I’ll have to think about that.’

‘Can we go to Dublin some day in the car?’ Conor asked. ‘And then we can stop where we like.’

‘Of course we can,’ she said as she pulled up in front of the house.

‘I’d like to do that,’ he said.

Soon she had the fire lit, and the boys were in their pyjamas and ready for bed. They had become quiet and she knew that they would fall asleep as soon as the light in their room was turned off. She wondered if anyone had called that evening, and she pictured someone approaching the house in darkness, and knocking on the front door and getting no answer, and standing there and waiting a while before walking away.

She made herself a cup of tea and came and sat in the armchair beside the fire. She turned on the radio but they were reading sports results and she turned it off. On going upstairs, she found that the boys were sound asleep and she stood watching them before closing the door and leaving them to the night. Downstairs, she wondered if there might be something interesting on the television. She went over and turned it on and waited for the picture to appear. How would she fill these hours? Just then she would have given anything to be back on the train, back walking the streets of Dublin. When the television came on it was an American comedy. She watched it for a few moments but the canned laughter irritated her and she turned it off. The house was silent now.

She thought of the book she had bought in Dublin. She could not remember what had made her buy it. She went out to the kitchen and searched for it in her bag. As soon as she opened the book she put it down again. She closed her eyes. In future, she hoped, fewer people would call. In future, once the boys went to bed, she might have the house to herself more often. She would learn how to spend these hours. In the peace of these winter evenings, she would work out how she was going to live.

Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History by Rhonda K. Garelick – Extract

I dressed the universe.

— CoCo Chanel, 1947

What is Chanel? what every woman is wearing without knowing it.

l’ExprEss magazine, 1956

Corporate headquarters for the House of Chanel occupies an anonymous building on a cul-de-sac in Paris’s fashionable first arrondissement. Step- ping inside the lobby, one enters a high modernist temple—a hushed, windowless cavern of gleaming cream-colored marble, smoked glass doors, and Eames chairs for waiting guests.

Patience is required here, since even after being announced by security guards, all visitors are personally ushered upstairs by a Chanel employee who must penetrate an elaborate series of high-security checkpoints with an electronic badge. For convenience, badges are worn on elastic strings around the neck, often hidden beneath the long ropes of Chanel pearls worn by so many of the (mostly female) employees here, along with chain-link belts, bouclé suits, jersey separates, quilted purses, beige-and-black shoes, and hundreds of other iconic objects, which, together with the wafting clouds of Chanel No. 5, conjure the goddess who haunts this temple still. She may have passed away more than forty years ago at the age of eighty-seven, but within these marble walls, the founder of the empire is ever-young, ever-present, and referred to simply as “Mademoiselle.”

Ask nearly any woman in the developed world if she is familiar with “Chanel” and you get an instant reaction—a little “whoosh” of breath, a deep awareness. Most men know who she is, too, or rather what it is, since part of what is being recognized is an identity that transcends fashion and even the person herself. For one hundred years and counting, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel has exerted global influence as a designer, a business- woman, a corporate brand, and, finally, as a symbol of feminine privilege and style.

Although Chanel was born in rural poverty and raised in an orphan- age with little formal education, by the time she was thirty her name was a household word in France. At the age of thirty, she expanded her business into the international market; thanks in part to the wild success of her perfume, Chanel No. 5 (the first synthetically created fragrance in history), she became a multimillionaire before the age of forty. By 1930, when Chanel was forty-seven, she employed 2,400 people and was worth at least $15 million—close to $1 billion in today’s currency. To this day, every three seconds a bottle of Chanel No. 5 is sold; it is the most successful perfume in history. The Chanel corporation, founded in 1910, is the highest-earning privately owned luxury goods manufacturer in the world. Chanel’s influence extends beyond the long life of her company; it has been woven deeply into global consciousness. Her name remains as recognizable today as it was a century ago, known not only to the mil- lions of customers who buy Chanel merchandise at all price points (from perfume to couture), but also to those who wish they could, and to the millions more who buy the infinitely available copies. Every day, on nearly any urban street corner in the world, a constant défilé of Chanel products (genuine and imitation) streams by—the famous initial motif, those interlocking Cs, emblazoned on handbags and scarves, dangling from necklaces and earrings. Not all of the women sporting these accessories necessarily know that they are wearing someone’s initials or that “Chanel” was once a real person, so completely has Chanel the woman blended into Chanel the brand. But they all have faith in the talismanic power of those Cs, in their ability to conjure a little magic, to cast an aura of chic and privilege over their wearer.

I know this because I have been stopping CC-wearing strangers for years to ask them what the letters mean to them. Regardless of social class or whether the “Chanels” are real, the answers rarely vary. When asked why she had chosen her oversize, rhinestone double-C earrings, one inner-city teenager (who was surprised to learn that “Chanel” was the name of a real woman) responded: “I don’t know; it’s just classy. I like the brand.” When asked about her black Chanel sunglasses, an affluent college student first assured me they were “real,” and then said, “It just makes me feel better to have them on.” A Chanel executive offered little more in the way of explanation, stating simply that the double-C logo was “un vrai sésame de luxe”—a French expression roughly translatable as “a truly magical passport [more literally, an ‘open sesame’] to luxury.”

Chanel would not have minded this odd admixture of fame and anonymity. On the contrary, she would have loved it, for she devoted her life to transcending the personal, to transforming herself (and her name) into an icon of feminine desirability and luxury. She would probably be equally pleased to learn that “Chanel” has gained popularity in the twenty-first century as a first name for baby girls in the United States. (A few young women now even bear the hyphenated first name “Coco-Chanel.”)

Through her unique blend of overt and anonymous influence Chanel forged the look of modern womanhood as we know it. Even now, every day, millions of women awake and costume themselves as some version of Coco Chanel, choosing from a vast array of simple and reproducible items that created the streamlined look designed and worn first by Chanel, then by her vast army of customers: skirt suits in neutral colors, trousers, cardigan sweaters, jersey knits, T-shirts, flat shoes, the little black dress, and about a hundred other items we consider wardrobe staples.

Chanel was among the very first to wear her hair short, to wear eye- glasses without shame, even to sport a suntan—formerly scorned as a sign of peasant labor. (Later, when she learned about skin-damaging UV rays, she counseled caution in the sun and developed a lotion with sunscreen.)

Look around you—on the street, in the subway, at the office—at women of all ages and social classes and you will see a kind of retinal afterimage of Coco Chanel. So deeply has the Chanel aesthetic been impressed upon us that we no longer see it—like the air we breathe, it is everywhere but invisible. Even during her lifetime and at the height of her fame, Chanel’s style operated more by stealth than by fanfare.

How can we explain the power and longevity of this one individual’s vision? Certain lives are at once so exceptional and so in step with their historical moment that they illuminate cultural forces far beyond the scope of a single person. Such is the case with Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, whose life, while fascinating in its details, becomes even more compel- ling when studied in relationship to European history, especially the interwar period—the era that launched her to stardom.

Despite the world’s fascination with Coco Chanel, no one has truly broached the subject of her relationship to the sweeping currents of political change in her lifetime; indeed, it has been shunned. “Mention Chanel and politics,” one prominent museum director warned me in ominous tones, “and they will shut you down.”

“They”—the tenders of the Chanel corporate flame—“will sully your reputation.” This may be true, for Chanel’s role in political history remains the curiously blank space around which many other books have been written. Biographies and films about Chanel tend to focus on her personal glamour and on her rags-to-riches story; histories of fashion recount her design work as if it had no political resonance beyond her (quite genuine) liberation of women’s bodies via her easy, relaxed style. Conversely, the books that do look at fashion politically tend to omit Chanel in favor of a literal idea of “political” fashion, tracing, for example, the history of Nazi uniforms, or studying fashion’s role as a wartime morale booster. The references to politics that do appear in Chanel biographies focus on revelations about her friends and lovers, or on a few of her own questionable political actions. What remains to be considered is how her work and art themselves partook of European politics, and what her many intriguing love affairs might offer beyond their anecdotal value. To discover the historical we must sometimes look to the personal.

Chanel came alive in relation to other people, the lovers and friends through whom she absorbed and synthesized every aspect of the world around her—art, history, politics. The key to her global importance lies in those intimate relationships. Chanel approached those closest to her with a uniquely ferocious hunger, a nearly vampiric desire to swallow whole and incorporate whatever appeared most delicious in them—their social status, athletic grace, talent, or style. Her fierce desire to absorb the desirable attributes of others—to borrow from them to enhance herself— sustained her through her early years. But it is also precisely the quality she understood best and appealed to in her own customers. Chanel knew from personal experience how deeply women can yearn to slip, as it were, into someone more comfortable, to burnish their own identities by borrowing someone else’s.

In response, she used fashion to create perhaps the world’s most easily borrowed persona, a persona so attractive on so many levels that other women longed to incorporate it, much as Coco herself had subsumed (and creatively reinterpreted) the influential people in her own life. In this, she demonstrated her strangely flexible, self-aware talent: She could play equally well both—apparently opposite—roles in the drama of emulation. She could, that is, discern and emulate vastly different creative models and then turn around and serve as just such a model for others, becoming arguably the most copied woman of the twentieth century.

Through her personal aesthetics, which evolved out of her own longings, Chanel tapped into other women’s deepest yearnings, whose scope—as Coco always knew—far exceeded the sartorial. Her brilliant grasp of the psychological and social forces driving celebrity emulation led Chanel to create what one might call “wearable personality”—which we are all still wearing today.

From the moment she arrived in Paris, Chanel was playing on the world stage, meeting and befriending some of the most influential and well-connected figures of the twentieth century—members of European royalty, artists and intellectuals, politicians, spies, and criminals. These relationships granted her intimate familiarity with large swaths of history, known to most people only through the pages of books. Coco’s lover Grand Duke Dmitri, for example, regaled her with his family stories—of the Romanov dynasty, the Bolshevik Revolution, and his personal role in the assassination of Rasputin. A later companion, Hugh Grosvenor, the 2nd Duke of Westminster, had participated in the Second Boer War— where he befriended Churchill—and contributed significant financial support to the establishment of British-ruled South Africa and its apartheid system. Artist Paul Iribe, to whom Chanel was briefly engaged, championed protofascist, archconservative, and racist causes, yet also had a deep, familial connection to the Paris Commune, the radical worker uprising of 1871. Iribe’s politics, which evolved in direct opposition to his father’s participation in that Communist revolt, profoundly informed Chanel’s own worldview, which veered ever rightward as time went on. Both personally and through her work, Chanel participated in a particular strain of politics that was heavily inflected with the mass movements of interwar Europe and their manipulations of human desires and insecurities. And yet, ever contradictory, Chanel was most tenderly attached to the memory of her lover, Boy Capel, a committed internationalist, and to her longtime intimate friend—and sometime lover—poet Pierre Reverdy, a staunch leftist who introduced her to classical French literature.

As readily as she took in and assimilated aesthetic influence, Chanel absorbed and filtered elements of European history that she discovered through her social and erotic encounters. Then, through an alchemical process unique to her, she transformed these filaments of history into her designs, creating an aesthetic that now functions as a kind of style DNA for virtually every woman in the industrialized world. Whether we know it or not, we are all now wearing Chanel’s distillation of European history, as she absorbed it through her relationships. No other single individual has ever wielded anything comparable to this degree of aesthetic influence on so many, or for so long.

Chanel herself had a complex personal relationship to the genre of biography: She found it at once frightening and compellingly attractive. Having sought all her life to hide her true origins—the poverty, her orphaned childhood, her lack of education—she replaced her life story with a series of ever-changing fictions, as carefully tailored as her clothes. She destroyed her own letters and begged (or bribed) her correspondents to do the same. Some say that her poor education left her with imperfect written French, which embarrassed her enough to keep her from writing many letters in the first place. Yet those few letters that do remain, in both French and English, while simply written and containing some minor errors, are far from embarrassing. And she famously lied constantly to everyone, about everything—even trivial matters—never bothering even to keep her many fictions consistent.

Yet as much as Chanel wished to hide her story, she yearned to tell it, too, and did—repeatedly—to various potential biographers, only to deny later what she’d recounted, withdraw approval for publication, or simply abandon the endeavor in midstream. This happened with a wide variety of writers (many of them her friends) who attempted to tell her story, including Jean Cocteau, novelist Louise de Vilmorin, journalist Michel Déon, and Edmonde Charles-Roux. Michel Déon sat for hours with Chanel interviewing her for his book, which she adamantly rejected afterward. Bowing to her wishes, he never published it and claims to have destroyed the manuscript. Even Chanel’s lifelong best friend, Misia Sert, encountered similar resistance. When Sert was about to pub- lish her own memoirs, Chanel insisted at the last minute that she excise the entire section devoted to their friendship. Charles-Roux’s biography, L’Irrégulière, remains among the best, although Chanel angrily repudiated both the book and her friend, Madame Charles-Roux, upon its publication. Chanel’s longtime friend, assistant, and chief stylist Lilou Marquand told me that Chanel wanted to make it illegal for anyone to write her biography, and tried to have her attorney René de Chambrun draw up an official document to formalize this impossible injunction. A few other writers and one movie producer told me that they, too, had begun and later given up on projects about Chanel’s life, so difficult did it become both legally and personally (even long after Mademoiselle’s death).

Among some of the biographers who succeeded in publishing their work on Chanel, a curious—even eerie—phenomenon prevails: The authors seem to permit their subject to overtake them entirely, almost as if through spirit possession. Jean Cocteau’s brief essay on Chanel features this stylistic oddity; it is written in the first person, as if spoken by Coco herself. But his is not the only one. Paul Morand, whose book The Allure of Chanel also stands among the finest (for its style rather than accuracy), results from a series of interviews between them (published only after Chanel’s death), but is written, as is Cocteau’s essay, in the first person, as if Coco had told the story herself.

Louise de Vilmorin, who’d been a close friend of Chanel’s, produced her Memoirs of Coco in 1971, and here, once more, the text is written in the first person, in the voice of Mademoiselle, though Chanel withdrew her approval of the manuscript when it was done and tried to block its publication legally. And while Justine Picardie’s 2010 biography, Chanel: The Legend and the Life, does not indulge in that peculiar, ventriloquized Cha- nel voice, Picardie does tiptoe into the realm of the occult.

Picardie, who received permission to spend a night in Chanel’s suite at the Ritz, has recounted a possible encounter with the ghost of Mademoiselle. According to Picardie, after she retired for the night in Chanel’s bed, all kinds of eerie mischief broke loose: A bulb burst out of a wall sconce; lights in the room began flickering on and off by themselves; doors rattled; voices murmured; and mysterious footsteps echoed in the corridor. Although told in a slightly tongue-in-cheek style, the episode seems designed to convey Chanel’s ongoing unearthly power, her tendency to invade anyone who dares write of her.

It may be that, faced with the depths of obfuscation Chanel practiced to shield the truth of her life, some biographers simply gave over their voices to Coco to signal that they could not determine an objective truth—that they were yielding to Chanel’s ongoing theatrical mono- logue about her life. But something more happens in these books; their transmission of Coco’s voice is too absolute, too startling, and happens too often to be the result of a mere stylistic coincidence. On the contrary, this biographical ventriloquism is nothing less than the literary version of Chanel’s stylistic revolution. That is, just as Chanel succeeded in making half the world wish to copy her, she seduced her biographers into channeling her voice. Chanel wills herself (sometimes even posthumously) to be reproduced by and through others. She truly embodies the spirit of mimetic contagion.

No one writing about Chanel proves completely immune to this seductive force of hers, and I confess I’ve had my moments. Few women raised on fashion magazines could mount the famous mirrored spiral staircase at the House of Chanel without a little inward gasp, without stopping for a moment to compose themselves as I did when climbing those noiseless, plush, beige-carpeted stairs. And thanks to the gracious staff of the Conservatoire Chanel (renamed in 2011 the Direction du Patrimoine Chanel), I have also experienced the thrill of examining Co- co’s personal jewelry collection, handling (and yes, trying on) her giant emerald ring (the stone a gift from the Duke of Westminster) and ruby- encrusted bracelet.

I have donned one of Romy Schneider’s original Chanel jackets, and I have spent time in the famous rue Cambon studio and adjacent apartment. There, I even tried on Mademoiselle’s spectacles and experienced firsthand their vertiginously strong prescription.

I knew I had to rein myself in, though, the night I interviewed Chanel’s longtime friend Lilou Marquand at her home in Paris. After spending hours talking with me, Madame Marquand began pulling Chanel clothes out of her closets and having me try them on. By evening’s end I was decked out in a sleek cream tweed coat (circa 1958) with Coco’s own white mousseline scarf tied dashingly (by Lilou) around my neck. Stylist that she still is in her late eighties, Madame Marquand insisted on taking photographs of me, and ran around her apartment adjusting the lighting and shouting posing instructions. I had the time of my life. As I left, Ma- dame Marquand insisted that I keep the scarf, which Coco had made for herself out of the hem of one of her own chiffon evening dresses. I floated home through the streets of Paris, letting my sixty-year-old scarf fly out behind me in the night breeze. I had succumbed—not only to the charm of my interview subject and the eternal pleasure of dress-up games—but also to the idea that I was wearing a relic, an object of nearly religious significance, a piece of French civilization as foundational as the Arènes de Lutèce, the stone ruins of a Roman arena hidden in Paris’s fifth arrondissement.

The next day, realizing how easily ensorcelled I’d been by this bit of Chanel mania, I rededicated myself to my goal here, which is to under- stand the process that had ensnared me: the mechanics behind this will to copy and to be copied, the will toward emulation, the reverence for long- dead charismatic individuals—in short, the uncanny historical reach of Coco Chanel.

Given how meticulously Chanel effaced her “true” self, to write an- other traditional biography of her would be misguided, an exercise in pinning down a ghost. After reading an early version of this manuscript, my editor pronounced Coco “the hole in the center of her own story.” She was right. Chanel seems sometimes to recede, to disappear from the grasp of those who try to explain her. Therein, though, lies the power of her life. In her zeal to fit in, Chanel dissolved and re-created herself a thousand times. But more important, she figured out a way to let other women do that, too. The Chanel persona and design universe beckon us to insert our own narratives into the blank space Coco left for us. That hole where her life should be is actually a seductive invitation. Like the painted pasteboard figures with cutout faces found at carnivals—behind which tourists pose for novelty self-portraits, “disguised” as pioneer wives or Victorian ladies—Chanel asks us to insert ourselves into her persona, to meld our own biography with hers.

Chanel’s close friend Jean Cocteau understood this phenomenon perfectly. In 1933 he published a cartoon portrait of her for Le Figaro il- lustré, omitting her face entirely. Coco’s identity communicates itself through the casually regal pose of the body, the distinctively bobbed hair, and, of course, everything she’s wearing: the strands of pearls, the gathered bow of the blouse, the softly draped jacket, the knee-length skirt. Cocteau’s drawing brilliantly hints at Chanel’s implicit invitation to other women to insert their own faces into the blank space, to enter into a dialogue or communion with Coco, without fear of losing themselves completely—without “losing face.” The longevity and appeal of Chanel’s aesthetic depend, in fact, upon just how easy this process is.

Map of Heaven by Doctor Eben Alexander – Extract

Imagine a young couple at their wedding. The ceremony is over, and everyone is crowding around on the church steps for a photo. But the couple, at this particular moment, doesn’t notice them. They’re too concerned with each other. They are looking deep into each others eyes—the windows of the soul, as Shakespeare called them.

Deep. A funny word to describe an action that we know can’t really be deep at all. Sight is a strictly physical affair. Pho- tons of light strike the retinal wall at the rear of the eye, a mere inch or so behind the pupil, and the information they deliver is then translated into electrochemical impulses that travel along the optic nerve to the visual processing center in the rear of the brain. It’s an entirely mechanical process.

But of course, everyone knows just what you mean when you say you’re looking deep into someone’s eyes. You’re seeing that person’s soul—that part of the human being that the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus was talking about some 2,500 years ago when he wrote: “You would not find the limits of the soul even if you travelled forever, so deep and vast is it.” Illusion or not, it is a powerful thing to glimpse that depth when it presents itself.

We see this depth manifested most powerfully on two occasions: when we fall in love, and when we see someone die. Most people have experienced the first, while fewer, in our society where death is so shunted out of sight, have experienced the second. But medical people and hospice workers who see death regularly will know immediately what I’m talking about. Suddenly where there was depth there is now only surface. The living gaze—even if the person in question was very old and that gaze was vague and flickering—goes flat.

We see this when an animal dies, too. The direct avenue into what the twentieth-century scholar of religions Titus Burckhardt called “the inward realm of the soul” goes dead, and the body becomes, in essence, like an unplugged appliance.

So imagine that bride and groom looking into each others eyes, and seeing that bottomless depth. The shutter snaps. The image is captured. A perfect shot of a perfect pair of young newlyweds.

Now jump ahead half a dozen decades. Imagine that this couple had kids, and that those kids had kids of their own. The man in the picture has died, and the woman now lives alone in an assisted living facility. Her kids visit her, she has friends at the facility, but sometimes, like right now, she feels alone.

It’s a rainy afternoon, and the woman, sitting by her window, has picked up that photo from where it sits in a frame on a side table. In the gray light filtering in, she looks at it. The photo, like the woman herself, has taken a long journey to get there. It started out in a photo album that was passed on to one of their children, then went into a frame and came with her when she moved to the facility. Though it’s fragile, a little yellowed and bent at the edges, it has survived. She sees the young woman she was, looking into the eyes of her new husband, and remembers how at that moment he was more real to her than anything else in the world.

Where is he now? Does he still exist?

On good days, the woman knows he does. Surely the man she loved so much for all those many years could not have simply vanished when his body died. She knows—vaguely— what religion has to say on the matter. Her husband is off in heaven: a heaven that, through years of more or less steady church attendance, she has professed belief in. Though deep down she has never been all that sure.

So on other days—days like today—she doubts. For she also knows what science has to say on this matter. Yes, she loved her husband. But love is an emotion, an electrochemical reaction that goes on deep inside the brain, releasing hormones into the body, dictating our moods, telling us whether to be happy or sad, joyous or desolate.

In short, love is unreal.

What is real? Well, that’s obvious. The molecules of steel and chrome and aluminum and plastic in the chair she sits in; the carbon atoms that make up the paper of the photo she holds in her hand; the glass and wood of the frame that protects it. And of course the diamond on her engagement ring and the gold of which both it and her wedding ring are made: those are real, too.

But the perfect, whole, and everlasting bond of love be- tween two immortal souls that these rings are meant to signify? Well, that’s all just pretty-sounding fluff. Solid, tangible matter: that’s what’s real. Science says so.

The inside is your true nature.

—Al-Ghazali, eleventh-century Islamic mystic

The root of the word reality is the Latin word res—“thing.” The things in our lives like car tires, skillets, soccer balls, and backyard swing sets are real to us because they possess a day-in, day-out consistency. We can touch them, weigh them in our hands, put them down, and come back later and find them unchanged, right where we left them.

We, of course, are made of matter as well. Our bodies are made of elements like hydrogen, the earliest and simplest element, and more complex ones like nitrogen, carbon, iron, and magnesium. All of these were cooked up—created—at inconceivable pressure and heat, in the hearts of ancient, now long-dead stars. Carbon nuclei have six protons and six neutrons. Of the eight positions in its outer shell where its electrons orbit, four are occupied by electrons, and four are vacant, so that electrons from other atoms or elements can link up with the carbon atom by binding their own electrons to those empty positions. This particular symmetry allows carbon atoms to link together with other carbon atoms, as well as other kinds of atoms and molecules, with fantastic efficiency. Both organic chemistry and biochemistry—massive subjects that dwarf chemistry’s other subsets—are exclusively devoted to studying chemical interactions involving carbon. The entire chemical structure of life on earth is based on carbon and its unique attributes. It is the lingua franca of the organic chemical world. Thanks to this same symmetry, carbon atoms, when submitted to tremendous pressure, lock together with a new tenacity, transforming from the black, earthy stuff we associate it with into that most powerful natural symbol of durability, the diamond.

But though the atoms of carbon and the handful of other elements that make up most of our bodies are all essentially immortal, our bodies themselves are transient in the extreme. New cells are born and old ones die. At every moment our bodies are taking matter from, and giving it back to, the physical world around us. Before long—the blink of an eye on a cosmic scale—our bodies will go back into the cycle entirely. They will rejoin the flux of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, calcium, and other primary substances that build up and disintegrate, again and again, here on earth.

This insight is nothing new, of course. The word human itself comes from the same root as humus, earth. So too does humble, which makes sense because the best way of staying humble is to realize what you’re made of. Long before science came along to explain the minute details of how it happens, cultures all around the world knew that our bodies are made from earth, and that when we die our bodies go back to it. As God says to Adam—a name itself derived from the Hebrew word adamah —“earth”—in Genesis: “Dust thou art, and to dust thou will return.”

Yet we humans have never been completely happy with this situation. The whole history of humanity can be seen as our response to this apparent earthiness of ours, and the feelings of pain and incompletion that it creates. We suspect that there is something more to the story.

Modern science—the latest and by far the most powerful of our responses to this ancient restlessness about our mortality—grew in large part out of an ancient technique of manipulating chemicals called alchemy. The origins of alchemy are lost in history. Some say it began in ancient Greece. Others say the first alchemists lived much earlier, perhaps in Egypt, and that the name itself derives from the Egyptian Al- Kemi or “black earth”—presumably a reference to the black, fertile soil on the banks of the Nile.

There were Christian alchemists, Jewish alchemists, Muslim alchemists, and Taoist or Confucian alchemists. It was simply everywhere. Wherever and whenever it did begin, alchemy grew into a fantastically complex and widespread series of practices. Most of these were concerned with turning “base” metals like copper and lead into gold. But the prime goal of alchemy was recovering the state of immortality that the alchemists believed humankind originally possessed, but lost long ago.

Many of the tools and methods of modern chemistry were invented by alchemists, often at considerable risk. Messing around with physical matter can be dangerous, and in addition to poisoning or blowing themselves up, alchemists risked getting in trouble with the local religious powers. Like the science it gave rise to, alchemy was, especially in Europe in the years leading up to the Scientific Revolution, a heresy.

One of the major discoveries of the alchemists in the course of their quest for immortality was that when you submit a chemical or element to what alchemists called a “trying” process—if you heat it, say, or combine it with some other chemical with which it is reactive—it will turn into something else. Like so many other gifts from the past, this knowledge sounds obvious to us now, but this is only because we didn’t do the work to discover it to begin with.

The first age was golden.


Why were the alchemists so interested in gold? One reason is obvious. The lesser alchemists— those who didn’t understand the deeper, underlying spiritual element at work in it—were simply trying to become rich. But the real alchemists were interested in gold for another reason.

Gold, like carbon, is an unusual element. The nucleus of the gold atom is very large. With seventy-nine protons, only four other stable elements are heavier. This big positive electrical charge causes the electrons that circle the nucleus of the gold atom to move at exceptional speed—approximately half the speed of light. If a photon comes to earth from the sun, the heavenly body most associated with gold in the alchemical texts, and bounces off an atom of gold, and that photon then happens to enter into one of our eyes and strikes the retinal wall, the message this delivers to the brain creates a curiously pleasant sensation in our consciousness. We humans react strongly to gold, and always have.

Gold powers much of the economic activity on our planet. It is beautiful and it is relatively rare, yet it has no great utilitarian value—nothing like the one we have placed on it, in any case. We have, as a species, decided it has value; that’s all. That’s why alchemists, both through their material experiments and the inner, meditative practices that often accompanied those experiments, sought it so desperately. Gold, for them, was the solidified, tangible representation of the heavenly part of the human being—the immortal soul. They sought to recover that other side of the human being—the golden side that joins with the earthy side to make us the people we are.

We are one part earth and one part heaven, and the alchemists knew this.

We need to know it, too.

Qualities, like the “beauty” of gold, and even its very color, are, we have been taught, not real. Emotions, we have been taught, are even less real. They’re just reactive patterns generated by our brains in response to hormonal messages sent by our bodies in response to situations of danger or desire.

Love. Beauty. Goodness. Friendship. In the worldview of materialist science, there is no room for treating these things as realities. When we believe this, just as when we believe it when we are told that meaning isn’t real, we lose our connection to heaven—what writers in the ancient world sometimes called the “golden thread.”

We get weak.

Love, beauty, goodness, and friendship are real. They’re as real as rain. They’re as real as butter, as real as wood, or stone, or plutonium, or the rings of Saturn, or sodium nitrate. On the earthly level of existence, it’s easy to lose sight of that.

But what you lose, you can get back.

Unlettered peoples are ignorant of many things, but they are seldom stupid because, having to rely on their memories, they are more likely to remember what is important. Literate peoples, by contrast, are apt to get lost in their vast libraries

of recorded information.*

—Huston Smith, Religion Scholar * Smith, The Way Things Are, 79.

Human beings have been around in our modern form for about one hundred thousand years. For most of this time, three questions have been intensely important to us:

Who are we?

Where did we come from? Where are we going?

For the vast majority of our time on this planet, human beings didn’t doubt for a moment that the spiritual world was real. We believed that it was the place each of us came from when we were born, and that it was the place we would return to when we died.

Many scientists today think we are right on the verge of knowing just about everything there is to know about the universe. There is much talk these days, among certain of these scientists, of a “Theory of Everything.” A theory that will ac- count for every last bit of data about the universe that we currently possess: a theory that, as the name suggests, will explain it all.

But there’s something rather curious about this theory. It doesn’t include answers to a single one of those three questions listed above: the questions that, for 99.9 percent of our time on earth, were the three most important ones to answer. This Theory of Everything makes no mention of heaven.

The word heaven originally meant, simply, “sky.” That is what the word that translates as “heaven” in the New Testament means. The Spanish word for heaven, cielo, also means “sky,” and comes from the same root that our word ceiling does as well. Though we now know that heaven isn’t literally up there, many of us continue to sense that there is a dimension or dimensions that are “above” the earthly world in the sense that they are “higher” in a spiritual sense. When I use “heaven” in this book, and talk about it being “above” us, I am doing so with the understanding that no one today thinks heaven is simply up there in the sky, or that it is the simple place of clouds and eternal sunshine that the word has come to conjure up. I am speaking in terms of another kind of geography: one that is very real, but also very different from the earthly one we are familiar with, and in comparison to which the entire observable physical dimension is as a grain of sand on a beach. There is another group out there today—a group that also includes many scientists—that also believes we might indeed be on the verge of discovering a Theory of Everything. But the Theory of Everything that this group is talking about is quite different from the one that materialist science thinks it’s on the verge of discovering.

This other theory will be different from the first one in two major ways.

The first is that it will posit that we can’t ever really have a Theory of Everything, if by that we mean an aggressive, materialist, data-oriented one.

The second difference is that, in this other Theory of Everything, all three of those original, all-important primordial questions about the human condition will be addressed. Heaven will be included in it.

I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.

—Max Planck (1858–1947), Quantum Physicist

In the twentieth century, after three fantastically successful centuries, science—in particular, the branch of science known as physics—got a surprise. Deep down, at the very heart of matter, it found something it couldn’t explain. It turned out that “matter,” that stuff that science thought it understood so well, wasn’t what science had thought it was at all. Atoms—those unbreakable, rock-solid little objects that science had thought were the ultimate building blocks of the world—turned out to be not so solid, or so unbreakable, after all. Matter turned out to be a dazzlingly intricate matrix of super-powerful but nonmaterial forces. There was nothing material to it.

It got even weirder. If there was one thing that science thought it knew as well as matter, it was space—the area that matter moved around in, nice and simple. But space wasn’t really “there,” either. At least not in the simple, straightforward, easy-to-understand way that scientists had thought it was. It bent. It stretched. It was inextricably linked with time. It was anything but simple.

Then, as if that weren’t enough, another factor entered into the picture: a factor that science had long known about, but had up until then displayed no interest in. In fact, science had only coined a word for this phenomenon in the seventeenth century, even though the world’s prescientific peoples all placed it at the center of their view of reality and had dozens of words for it.

This new factor was consciousness—that simple, yet supremely unsimple fact of being aware—of knowing oneself and the world around one.

No one in the scientific community had the remotest idea what consciousness was, but this hadn’t been a problem be- fore. Scientists just left it out of the picture—because, they said, being unmeasurable, consciousness wasn’t real. But in the 1920s, quantum mechanical experiments revealed not only that you could detect consciousness, but that, at a subatomic level, there was no way of not doing so, because the consciousness of the observer actually bound the observer to all he or she observed. It was an irremovable part of any scientific experiment.

This was a staggering revelation—despite the fact that most scientists still chose, by and large, to ignore it. Much to the chagrin of the many scientists who believed they were right on the edge of explaining everything in the universe from a completely materialistic perspective, consciousness now moved right to the center of the stage and refused to be pushed aside. As the years went on and scientific experimentation at the subatomic level—a domain known, in general, as quantum mechanics—became ever more sophisticated, the key role that consciousness played in every experiment became ever clearer, if still impossible to explain. As the Hungarian- American theoretical physicist Eugene Wigner wrote: “It was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to consciousness.” The Spanish mathematical physicist Ernst Pascual Jordan put the matter even more forcefully: “Observations,” he wrote, “not only disturb what is to be measured, they produce it.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that we make reality with our imaginations; but it does mean that consciousness is so tied up with reality that there is no way of conceiving reality without it. Consciousness is the true bedrock of existence.

The physics community has yet to interpret what the results of experiments in quantum mechanics reveal about the workings of the universe. The brilliant founding fathers of the field, including Werner Heisenberg, Louis de Broglie, Sir James Jeans, Erwin Schrödinger, Wolfgang Pauli, and Max Planck, were driven into mysticism in their efforts to fully comprehend the results of their experiments about the workings of the subatomic world. According to the “measurement problem,” consciousness plays a crucial role in determining the nature of evolving reality. There is no way to separate the ob- server from the observed. The reality portrayed by experiments in quantum mechanics is completely counterintuitive from what one might expect based on our daily lives in the earthly realm. A deeper understanding and interpretation will require a thorough reworking of our concepts of consciousness, causality, space, and time. In fact, a robust enhancement of physics that fully embraces the reality of consciousness (soul or spirit) as the basis of all that is will be necessary to transcend the profound enigma at the heart of quantum physics.

I maintain that the human mystery is incredibly demeaned by scientific reductionism, with its claim in promissory materialism to account eventually for all of the spiritual world in terms of patterns of neuronal activity. This belief must be classed as a superstition. . . . we have to recognize that we are spiritual beings with souls existing in a spiritual world as well as material beings with bodies and brains existing in a material world.

— Sir John c. Eccles (1903–1997), Neuro Physiologist

No description of the nature of reality can even begin before we have a much clearer view of the true nature of consciousness, and its relationship to emerging reality in the physical realm. We could make greater progress if those trained in physics would also jump headlong into the study of what some scientists have called the “hard problem of consciousness.” The essence of the hard problem is that modern neuroscience assumes that the brain creates consciousness out of its sheer complexity. However, there is absolutely no explanation that suggests any mechanism by which this occurs. In fact, the more research we do on the brain, the more we realize that consciousness exists independently of it. Roger Penrose, Henry Stapp, Amit Goswami, and Brian Josephson are notable examples of physicists who have pursued an incorporation of consciousness into physics models, but most of the physics community remains oblivious to the more esoteric levels of inquiry required.

The day science begins to study nonphysical phenomena, it will make more progress in one decade than in all the previous centuries of its existence.

—Nikola Tesla (1856–1943)

The new theory—the new “Map of Everything” that I am so in favor of—will include all the revolutionary discoveries that science has made in the last century, most especially the new discoveries about the nature of matter and space and the revolutionary discoveries of the centrality of consciousness that threw materialistic science into such chaos at the beginning of the twentieth century. It will address discoveries like that of the physicist Werner Heisenberg that subatomic particles are never actually in one place, but occupy a constant state of statistical probability—so that they might be here, or they might be there, but they can never be totally nailed down to a single, no-doubt-about-it spot. Or that a photon—a unit of light—will appear as a wave if we measure it in one way, and as a particle if we measure it in another way, even while remaining exactly the same photon. Or discoveries like Erwin Schrödinger’s that the outcome of certain subatomic experiments will be determined by the consciousness of the observer recording them in such a way that they can actually “reverse” time, so that an atomic reaction set off inside a box that was sealed three days previously will not actually complete itself until the box is opened and the results of the action are noted by a conscious observer. The atomic reaction stays in a suspended state of both happening and not happening until consciousness enters the picture and cements it into reality.

This new Map of Everything will also include the vast quantities of data that are coming in from a whole other area of research, one that materialist science paid even less attention to in the past than it did to consciousness, and that dogmatic religion resolutely ignored as well: Near-death experiences. Deathbed visions. Moments of apparent contact with departed loved ones. The whole world of strange but totally real encounters with the spiritual world that people experience all the time, but that neither dogmatic science nor dogmatic religion has allowed us to talk about.

The kind of events that people talk to me about all the time.

Dear Dr. Alexander,

 I loved reading about your experience. It reminded me of my fathers near death experience four years before he passed away.

 My dad had a PhD in astrophysics and was absolutely 100% “scientifically minded before his near death experience.

He was in a pretty bad way in intensive care. He had trodden an emotionally hard path in life and fallen prey to alcoholism, until many of his body organs packed up and he caught double pneumonia. He was in intensive care for three months. During that time, he spent a while in an induced coma. When he started to recover he began to relay his experience of being with angel- like beings who were communicating to him not to worry and that everything was going to be fine. They said he would get better and continue his life. He said they were helping him and that he was no longer afraid of dying. He used to tell me, after he recovered, not to worry when he did die and to know that he would be fine.

. . . [H]e changed massively after his experience. He didn’t drink anymore, but . . . speaking about it was too much for him . . . he was a very private man. . . . He died of a tear in his aorta very suddenly at home in his sleep, four years after his stay in hospital. We kept finding Post-It notes around his

house after he died—“GaHf.” In the end, we deduced it to mean “Guardian angels. Have faith.” Maybe this had helped him in his abstinence. It maybe helped him to remember the comfort he had felt while out of his body.

Soon before he died I remember asking him what he thought happens when we actually die. He said he didn’t really know, and that it was just something that we as humans haven’t found out yet, but we will. I guess he had experienced the place where science and spirituality meet. It was a real comfort

to read your experience and it reaffirmed to me my dad’s experience too.

Many thanks,


Why do people tell me stories like this? The answer is simple. I’m a doctor who had an NDE—a solid member of the “dogmatic science” side of the room, who had an experience that sent him over to the other side. Not the “dogmatic religion” side, but a third side of the room, if you will: a side that believes science and religion both have things to teach us, but that neither has, or ever will, have all the answers. This side of the room believes that we are on the edge of something genuinely new: a marriage of spirituality and science that will change the way we understand and experience ourselves forever.

In Proof of Heaven, I described how the sudden onset of a very rare strain of bacterial meningitis put me in a hospital, and a deep coma, for seven days. During that time, I under- went an experience that I am still in the process of absorbing and comprehending. I journeyed through a series of supra- physical realms, each one more extraordinary than the last.

In the first, which I call the Realm of the Earthworm’s- Eye View, I was immersed in a primitive, primordial state of consciousness that felt, while I was in it, something like being buried in earth. It was, however, not ordinary earth, for all around me I sensed—and sometimes heard and saw—other forms, other entities. It was part horrific, part comforting

(I felt like I was, and always had been, a part of this primitive murk). I am often asked, “Was this hell?” I would expect hell to be at least a little bit interactive, and this was nothing of the sort. Even though I didn’t remember earth, or even what a human was, I at least had a sense of curiosity. I would ask, “Who? What? Where?” and there was never a flicker of response.

Eventually, a being of light—a circular entity that gave off a beautiful, heavenly music that I called the Spinning Melody—came slowly down from above, throwing off marvelous filaments of living silver and golden light. The light opened up like a rip in the fabric of that coarse realm, and I felt myself going through the rip, like a portal, up into a staggeringly beautiful valley full of lush and fertile greenery, where waterfalls flowed into crystal pools. I found myself as a speck of awareness on a butterfly wing among pulsing swarms of millions of other butterflies. I witnessed stunning blue-black velvety skies filled with swooping orbs of golden light, which I later called angelic choirs, leaving sparkling trails against billowing, colorful clouds. Those choirs produced hymns and anthems far beyond anything I had ever encountered on earth. There was also a vast array of larger universes that took the form of what I came to call an “over-sphere,” that was there to help in imparting the lessons I was to learn. The angelic choirs provided yet another portal to higher realms. I ascended until I reached the Core, that deepest sanctum sanctorum of the Divine—infinite inky blackness, filled to overflowing with in- describable divine unconditional love. There I encountered the infinitely powerful, all-knowing deity whom I later called Om, because of the sound I sensed so prominently in that realm. I learned lessons of a depth and beauty entirely beyond my capacity to explain. Throughout my time in the Core, there was always the strong sense of there being three of us (the infinite Divine, the brilliant orb, and pure conscious awareness).

During this voyage, I had a guide. She was an extraordinarily beautiful woman who first appeared as I rode, as that speck of awareness, on the wing of that butterfly in the Gateway Realm. I’d never seen this woman before. I didn’t know who she was. Yet her presence was enough to heal my heart, to make me whole in a way I’d never known was possible. Without actually speaking, she let me know that I was loved and cared for beyond measure and that the universe was a vaster, better, and more beautiful place than I could ever have dreamed. I was an irreplaceable part of the whole (like all of us), and all the sadness and fear I had ever known in the past was a result of my somehow having forgotten this most central of facts.

Dear Dr. Alexander,

Thirty-four years ago I had a NDE—but it wasn’t me who was dying. My mother was. She was being treated for cancer at the hospital and the doctors there told us she had at most six months to live. It was Saturday, and I was set to fly from Ohio to New Jersey on Monday. I was out in my garden, when suddenly this feeling went through me. It was overwhelming. It was a feeling of an unbelievable amount of love. It was the best “high” you could possibly imagine. I stood up, wondering: What on earth was that? Then it went through me again. It happened three times in all. I knew my mother had passed. The feeling was like she was hugging me but going right through me. And every time she did, I felt this supernatural, unbelievable, immeasurable amount of love.

I went into my house, still in a fog as to what had happened. I sat down by the phone to wait for the call from my sister. After ten minutes the phone rang. It was my sister. “Mom passed away,” she said.

Even 30 years later I can’t tell this story without crying—not from sadness so much as joy. Those three moments in the garden changed my life for good. Since then, I haven’t feared death. I’m actually jealous of people who have passed away. (I know that sounds weird but it’s true.)

Back when this happened we didn’t have all these TV shows and books about NDEs. They weren’t the public phenomenon they are today. So I had no idea of what to think of it. But I knew it was real.

Jean Hering

When I returned from my journey (a miracle in itself, de- scribed in detail in Proof of Heaven), I was in many ways like a newborn child. I had no memories of my earthly life, but knew full well where I had been. I had to relearn who, what, and where I was. Over days, then weeks, like a gently falling snow, my old, earthly knowledge came back. Words and language returned within hours and days. With the love and gentle coaxing of my family and friends, other memories came back. I returned to the human community. By eight weeks my prior knowledge of science, including the experiences and learning from more than two decades spent as a neurosurgeon in teaching hospitals, returned completely. That full recovery remains a miracle without any explanation from modern medicine.

But I was a different person from the one I had been. The things I had seen and experienced while gone from my body did not fade away, as dreams and hallucinations do. They stayed. And the longer they stayed, the more I realized that what had happened to me in the week I spent beyond my physical body had rewritten everything I thought I knew about all of existence. The image of the woman on the butter- fly wing stayed with me, haunting me, just as did all the other extraordinary things I’d encountered in those worlds beyond.

Four months after coming out of my coma, I received a picture in the mail. A photograph of my biological sister Betsy—a sister I’d never known because I had been adopted at a young age and Betsy had died before I had sought out and reunited with my biological family. The photo was of Betsy. But it was also of someone else. It was the woman on the butterfly wing.

The moment I realized this, something crystallized inside me. It was almost as if, since coming back, my mind and soul had been like the amorphous contents of a butterfly chrysalis:

I could not return to what I had been before, but I could not move forward, either. I was stuck.

That photo—as well as the sudden shock of recognition I felt when I gazed at it was the confirmation that I’d needed. From then on, I was back in the old, earthly world I’d left behind before my coma struck, but as a genuinely new person.

I had been reborn.

But the real journey was just beginning. More is revealed to me every day—through meditation, through my work with new technologies that I hope will make it easier for others to gain access to the spiritual realm (see the appendix), and through talking with people I meet on my travels. Many, many people have glimpsed some of what I glimpsed, and experienced what I experienced. These people love to share their stories with me, and I love to hear them. It strikes them as wonderful that a long-standing member of the materialist scientific community could be changed as much as I have been. And I agree.

As an M.D. with a long career at esteemed medical institutions like Duke and Harvard, I was the perfect understanding skeptic. I was the guy who, if you told me about your NDE, or the visit you’d received from your dead aunt to tell you that all was well with her, would have looked at you and said, sympathetically but definitively, that it was a fantasy.

Countless people are having experiences like these. I meet them every day. Not just at the talks I give, but standing be- hind me in line at Starbucks and sitting next to me on air- planes. I have become, through the reach that Proof of Heaven achieved, someone whom people feel they can talk to about this kind of thing. When they do, I am always astonished at the remarkable unity and coherence of what they have to say. I am discovering more and more similarities between what these people tell me and what the peoples of the past believed. I am discovering what the ancients knew well: Heaven makes us human. We forget it at our peril. Without knowledge of the larger geography of where we came from and where we are going again when our physical bodies die, we are lost. That “golden thread” is the connection to the above that makes life here below not just tolerable but joyful. We are lost without it. My story is a piece of the puzzle—a further hint from the universe and the loving God at work in it that the time of bossy science and bossy religion is over, and that a new marriage of the better, deeper parts of the scientific and spiritual sensibilities is going to occur at last.

In this book, I share what I have learned from others— ancient philosophers and mystics, modern scientists, and many, many ordinary people like me—about what I call the Gifts of Heaven. These gifts are the benefits that come when we open ourselves to the single greatest truth that those before us knew: there is a larger world behind the one we see around us every day. That larger world loves us more than we can possibly imagine, and it is watching us at every moment, hoping that we will see hints in the world around us that it is there.

For a few seconds only, I suppose, the whole compartment was filled with light. This is the only way I know in which to describe the moment, for there was nothing to see at all. I felt caught up into some tremendous sense of being within a loving, triumphant and shining purpose. I never felt more humble. I never felt more exalted. A most curious but overwhelming sense possessed me and filled me with ecstasy. I felt that all was well for mankind—how poor the words seem! The word “well” is so poverty stricken. All men were shining and glorious beings who in the end would enter incredible joy. Beauty, music, joy, love immeasurable and a glory unspeakable, all this they would inherit. Of this they were heirs.

All this happened over fifty years ago but even now I can see myself in the corner of that dingy, third-class compartment

with the feeble lights of inverted gas mantles overhead. . . . In a few moments the glory departed—all but one curious, lingering feeling. I loved everybody in that compartment. It sounds silly now, and indeed I blush to write it, but at that moment I think I would have died for any one of the people in that compartment.*

* Religious Experience Research Center, account number 000385, quoted in Hardy, The Spiritual Nature of Man, 53.

My whole life has been a search for belonging. Growing up the son of a highly respected brain surgeon, I was constantly aware of the admiration-bordering-on-veneration that people have for surgeons. People worshipped my dad. Not that he encouraged it. A humble man with a strong Christian faith, he treated his responsibility as a healer with far too much weight to ever indulge in self-aggrandizement. I marveled at his humility and his deep sense of his own calling. I wanted nothing more than to be like him; to measure up; to become a member of the medical brotherhood that, in my eyes, had a sacred allure.

After years of hard work, I earned my way deep into that secular brother and sisterhood of surgeons. However, the spiritual faith that had come so easily and naturally to my father evaded me. Like many other surgeons in the modern world, I was a master of the physical side of the human being, and a complete innocent about the spiritual side. I simply didn’t believe it existed.

Then came my NDE, in 2008. What happened to me is an illustration of what is happening to us as a culture at large, as is each individual story I have heard from the people I’ve met. Each of us carries a memory of heaven, buried deep within us. Bringing that memory to the surface—helping you find your own map to that very real place—is the purpose of this book.

My Bon Scott by Irene Thornton – Extract


I met a prominent politician a few years ago. At least, I tried to meet him. He was a friend of my friend Andrea, an independent senator who fought for ordinary working people, and I really admired him. I’m going to shake his hand, I thought. It took a bit of nerve because I’m not the most confident person, particularly in crowds.

We were at Andrea’s 60th birthday party at her home in Adelaide, surrounded by party guests, and half of them had the same idea as me. I needed an introduction but Andrea wasn’t around, so I hovered nearby with a drink in my hand, looking like a spare part. Nice to meet you, I rehearsed in my head, I just wanted to say . . .

While I hovered, I pretended I was engrossed in a photograph on Andrea’s wall. It was a picture of me, taken 40 years earlier, photocopied and hung limply with a single piece of Blu-Tack. It was a photo of my ex and me on our wedding day, two young kids in funny seventies clothing. I’d seen it a thousand times before. Anyway, I wasn’t really paying attention to the picture. I was listening to the senator and waiting for an opportunity to introduce myself (hoping I didn’t look like I was just standing around, waiting for an opportunity to introduce myself).

I was about to give up on the whole thing when the woman the politician had been talking to left the room. Right, here goes, I thought. I turned, reached out my hand and the word ‘hello’ was just forming in my mouth when a young guy leapt in between us. The senator was startled because the young man was very pissed, very excited and talking very loudly.

‘Hey, tell me something!’ he said to me, eyes wide. ‘That’s you, isn’t it? That’s you!’

He was pointing at the picture on the wall. ‘Yeah, long time ago,’ I mumbled.

‘And that’s . . .?’ he shouted, pointing at my ex.

I laughed at him and shook my head in embarrassment, colour creeping into my cheeks. The kid was nearly beside himself. The politician was looking at the photo with a confused expression on his face.

‘Go on, say it!’ the guy pressed. ‘Say it, go on!’ I sighed and smiled.

‘That’s Bon Scott,’ I replied.

‘Bon Scott!’ the kid shouted, and turned to the senator to yell drunkenly in his face. ‘She was married to Bon Scott!’

The young guy was over the moon but I was mortified. The politician was still standing beside us, but my window of opportunity had closed. The kid had a lot of questions and he wasn’t going away until I’d answered them – all of them, every single one.

It wasn’t the first time something like that had happened to me, but it was always strange when it did. I told a girl- friend about it later and she was delighted.

‘You know, there are more people in the world who know about Bon than about your beloved senator,’ she laughed.

‘Sure, but I’m not Bon,’ I replied. ‘I’m Bon Scott’s wife. Or I was Bon Scott’s wife, 40 years ago.’

‘The kid was just jogging your memory,’ she said. I laughed at her and shook my head.

As if I could ever forget.


THERE are 2000 kilometres between Adelaide and Perth, but I don’t think much else separates them. Bon Scott grew up in the suburbs of a hot, remote

Australian city surrounded by long, white beaches. My suburbs were very similar to his. As Australian kids growing up in the fifties and sixties, we were isolated from the rest of the world. It was beamed in on our black-and-white television sets; we heard about it on the radio and in the cinema, but it was still very far away. The real world didn’t extend much beyond your front door, not back then. The real world was dry lawns, Hills Hoists and a roast dinner on Sundays.

I was born in Port Pirie in 1950, a country town on the South Australian coast about two hours drive from Adelaide. It was a dusty place – home to a smelting plant, a gritty shell beach and a few faded weatherboard houses.

My parents were Port Pirie people, born and bred: simple, honest, and in my dad’s case, slightly down in the mouth. ‘If I’ve got enough money, would you like to go out to the pictures on Saturday?’ he had asked Mum.

She said yes as an act of kindness. Later, she told me she had always liked men with dark, curly hair. Dad was blond, but he convinced her to marry him anyway. He was a good man.

Mum had worked in her parents’ corner store but she gave that up to be a housewife while Dad went to work as a draftsman. They had a son, my older brother, Peter, when Dad went off to fight in the war. When he came home again, a bit worse for wear, he and Mum had three more kids, my sister Kathleen, my sister Fay and me. Kathleen was the eldest girl, I was the middle child with sunny blonde hair and Fay was the baby. I called Fay my little blister (instead of my sister) because she was always tagging along behind me, driving me nuts.

Port Pirie was too small for a growing family so Dad cast his line a bit further afield and snagged a job in Adelaide. When I was four or five, we moved to the big city – or the bigger city, at least. Adelaide was impressive compared to Port Pirie, but it was no gleaming metropolis. Even when the population climbed over a million, people still called it Australia’s largest country town. To me, it felt like one endless suburb: picket fence after picket fence, as far as the eye could see.

My family lived in a red-brick Californian bungalow, with a long, shady porch out front. Towards the back of the house were two bedrooms and a third makeshift room, which was closed off with a curtain hanging from a piece of string. We were sardined into the place, but it was generally pretty comfortable, except in summer. When it was too hot, we slept on the fl in the hallway or on a blanket out on the front lawn. We weren’t very well-off, but I wasn’t aware of it at the time. My life seemed pretty ordinary.

I remember what most Australians remember about their childhood: running under the sprinkler in the baking January heat; heading off on long adventures on my bike. I was a happy little kid, with a fringe and pigtails and nice clothes to wear to church on Sundays. I played tennis and netball, and I really loved to read, mostly English adventure novels and Archie comics. I was a bit of a dreamer. Irene spends too much time staring out of the window, my school reports read, but she is very polite and courteous. I was good at English but terrible at arithmetic, no matter how much help my father gave me with my homework.

After school, I skipped rope and played in the vacant church tennis courts with other kids from the neighbourhood, drew on the footpath in chalk and raced paper boats down storm drains. On the weekends, or when I was lucky enough to have a day off school, Mum took me to the matinee session at the local movie theatre. I had stars in my eyes, the way little girls do. I collected old magazines with black-and-white pictures of Hollywood legends, like Jean Harlow, Audrey Hepburn and Clark Gable. To me, they were no different from the characters in fairy tales.

When you live in a small world, people take their cues from their neighbours, not reality TV. If my father painted the house, the house up the road would be painted a week later, and people noticed if you didn’t mow the lawn regularly. On the other hand, we actually spent time with our neighbours. They were our closest friends. On Friday nights, my whole family would climb through a hole in the fence to watch television with the lady next door and half the time the kids would fall asleep on the lino under the table, or propped up against the couch, while the adults drank beer and ate biscuits and talked. It wasn’t particularly exciting but it was the only life we knew.

My dad passed away when I was ten. My brother, Peter, had moved back to Port Pirie to study metallurgy and work at the smelting plant, so Mum was left with three girls to raise on a war widows’ pension. My father’s death was a shock and it made me quite introverted, and being introverted in my early teens made me a bit uncertain socially. I became quite a nervous person, and second-guessed myself a lot, but it all happened inside my head. On the surface, I stuck my chin out and had a serious independent streak.

Our family struggled, but we got by. It took Mum a long while to get over Dad’s death and even longer to get her sense of humour back, but she focused on her kids and found a way to carry on. Dinner was always on the table at six (the vegetables had usually been boiling since three) and our clothes were always clean and ironed. Mum was very simple and very good, though she loved a bit of slapstick. She sat in bed every night eating an apple and reading the Bible, but good luck if you bumped your head on a kitchen cupboard – Mum would be too busy laughing to bandage you up.

Kathleen was quite glamorous as a teenager, honey blonde and attractive with big bones and big curves, and plenty of interest from the boys. She was the polar opposite of me. I was a waif, standing off to one side of the schoolyard, lost in my thoughts. The one thing we had in common was art. Kathleen was a very talented illustrator and when I was still young she let me tag along to her Saturday art classes at a nearby technical college. I loved to draw – I got the gift from my dad who did amazing illustrations. I wasn’t particularly good at painting but I drew really excellent cartoons, and once I’d got into the habit of doing them I never stopped. Throughout my life, whenever someone bothered me or made me laugh with a particular quirk, I drew a caricature of them. It’s a good feeling when you know you’ve captured someone perfectly, especially if they have a unique character. I drew a lot of pictures of Bon over the years.

I loved music, even as a kid. The radio was always on at home and I always had a song in my head, tunes from the forties and fifties that my mother adored. The old songs still come back to me – Jim Reeves and Kitty Lester, ‘(I Don’t Know Why) But I Do’ by Clarence ‘Frogman’ Henry and ‘A White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation’ by Marty Robbins. I’ll start humming them to myself over the dishes, half a century later.

But my life really changed when I heard The Beatles. ‘Love Me Do’ came out when I was twelve and I adored it. They had such a radically different sound, with such beautiful harmonies, that a line was drawn between them and everything that had come before. The Beatles were the first musicians I really knew and loved, and the first band that belonged to me instead of my mum. When they came to Adelaide in 1964, I went into the city to see them. I was too young to go to the concert, but I took a bus into town and stood in a sea of screaming kids while the Fab Four came out and waved at us from the hotel balcony, little specks in the distance. It’s hard to explain how strange the experience was. The world of Elvis and The Beatles and British rock was a million miles away from my front lawn, but suddenly they were right there, in Adelaide. It was the first time I felt like that distant world had a real, three-dimensional shape – if I could just get close enough, I could actually reach out and touch them. Add to that the screaming hysteria of a few thousand young fans and you can imagine the impression the experience made on my tiny little brain.

I saw my first live band about a year later at the scout hall around the corner from my house. They were called The Silhouettes and they played Beatles covers, plus songs by The Animals and The Troggs, and other great bands of that era. The sheer volume of it really blew my mind; they must have been playing on crappy little PA systems, but the music was still louder than I’d ever heard it before. People were dancing, too, which was just incredible. It was like stepping onto a different planet.

A lot of kids went out to see bands play in the sixties, so I was hardly unusual, but I was probably a bit more dedicated than your average teen. Shows were advertised on posters and on the radio, and I’d catch buses to go and see them, trekking out to the suburbs or into the city. It was an amazing time for music in Adelaide; there were clubs, halls and venues all over the place and some of the biggest Australian bands of the era were based in my hometown. Glenn Shorrock played in The Twilights and they were huge; I saw them play all the time. The Masters Apprentices was another local act, although they called themselves The Mustangs and played surf-rock tunes by The Shadows back then. I used to watch them perform in coffee lounges, which were shitty little places that sold toasted sandwiches, fruit juice and what must have been the world’s worst coffee.

When I got older I saw bands play in pubs, but in the early days it was all very innocent. Sober teenagers filed into the hall, danced, clapped politely and left. But I thought it was really cool. I was impressed with how the people at gigs dressed; they seemed far more fashion- able than the kids at school. The girls wore miniskirts and the boys wore button-up shirts and stovepipe pants, and turtlenecks when they came in style. I loved clothes almost as much as I loved music and I enjoyed dressing up to go out, in outfits stitched together on Mum’s old sewing machine. As I got older, I added a ton of black eye makeup and red lipstick, which ended up smeared all over Mum’s towels at the end of the night. My poor long-suffering mother never complained, and she didn’t bat an eyelid no matter how short my skirts got.

‘You look lovely, dear,’ she’d say meekly. ‘Just don’t swear, because it spoils the way you look.’

My fashion sense, like the music I loved, was imported from overseas. There were loads of great Australian bands but hardly any of them were playing original music – the guys who picked up guitars in the mid-sixties were still trying to imitate their idols; they hadn’t even considered competing with them. Australia was just an outpost for the British music scene, connected to Mother England via the ‘Ten-pound Poms’. In Adelaide especially, which had a huge ex-pat community in the outer suburb of Elizabeth, English–Australian kids with relatives back home brought the latest fashion and music from the UK and transplanted it in our backyards.

I’d see them riding the long, flat Adelaide roads on motorised scooters, in their three-piece suits and anoraks, looking totally out of place. In England, they would have been called Mods. They had a huge influence on Australian rock ’n’ roll.

Bon Scott’s family was Scottish, but they came to Australia with the rest of the Ten-pound Poms, as part of an assisted passage scheme to encourage British migration to Australia in the post-war years. Their tickets cost ten pounds apiece, which was a very cheap way into the lucky country. A land of sunshine and opportunity was waiting for anyone with a tenner in their pocket – it just happened to be at the arse end of the universe.

Bon was six when the Scott family migrated, landing in Melbourne before resettling in Perth. Bon’s father, Chick, had moved them for much the same reason my dad moved us; he was restless after the war. Australia had a booming economy and land to spare, including plenty of land where the Scott boys could run wild. There was Bon
(born Ronald Belford Scott on 9 July 1946), Derek (three years younger) and Graeme (born 1953), and the three of them needed a lot of room to grow.

The family settled in Fremantle, an old port at the mouth of the Swan River, and Bon and his brothers became little fish, disappearing to the river whenever they could, launch- ing themselves off tree branches and stuffing around in the water. They rode their bikes, played sports and read comic books; they made friends with kids in the neighbourhood, got into scrapes and found ways to entertain themselves without video games or smartphones. When it was hot, they went to the beach. When they were bored, they went looking for adventure. According to his mum, Isa, Bon was a very social kid and she often had to drag him away from friends just to get him to the house for dinner.

Like me, Bon didn’t excel at school, although he probably didn’t try as hard as I did. From when he was a toddler in Scotland, marching through the streets of Kirriemuir with the local pipe band, his mission in life was clear. He was going to be a musician. He played the drums on whatever he could find, whether it was Isa’s pots or the breadbox. He wanted to learn piano, but he wouldn’t go to the lessons, so Chick bought him an accordion and Bon gave that a try (it wasn’t nearly loud enough). His parents finally relented and traded the accordion for a drum kit and all of a sudden Bon’s talent took off. He joined the Scots Club pipe band in Fremantle and played the drum alongside his father, and became a novice champion in drumming at the tender age of twelve. He wore a kilt and played traditional Scottish music right up until he turned seventeen.

Bon was a few years older than me. He fell in love with rock ’n’ roll in the late fifties, with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry. The image of the rock ’n’ roll rebel stuck with him, and it went hand-in-hand with his own teenage antics. Bon was a working-class kid in a rough port town; he started to smoke, he roamed in a gang and he learned how to fight. He dropped out of school when he was fifteen and spent nine months in a boys’ prison when he was sixteen (for stealing petrol and some other minor offences). When he left prison, Bon got some tattoos. He was a tough young man by then. He didn’t play in a rock ’n’ roll band until he was almost nineteen, but he was already living a rock ’n’ roll life.

The British Invasion was well and truly underway when Bon joined his first band, a covers act called The Spektors. Like everyone else, they were dazzled by The Beatles and then floored by The Rolling Stones, and they did their best to imitate their heroes, but they were a teenybop- per band. They played crowd-pleasing, unsophisticated music and tried their best to look cute. And that was enough. In the year they were together, The Spektors built a decent following on the Perth dance hall circuit. Then in 1966, they merged with their local rivals, The Winstons, to become The Valentines. Bon took co-lead singer duties with The Winstons’ singer, Vince Lovegrove, and together they decided to become professional musi- cians. The Valentines were ambitious, inspired by the success of The Twilights and Masters Apprentices, as well as Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs and The Easybeats out of Sydney. They released their first single in 1967, and made the Number 5 spot on the local charts. Shortly afterwards,The Valentines left Perth for Melbourne, to try their luck at being real pop stars.

I saw The Valentines on television, although I never saw them live. There were shows like Kommotion and The Go!! Show in the sixties, which had bands on to perform their latest hit single. The Valentines were on a show called Uptight to mime along to ‘Build Me Up Butter- cup’, wearing puffy-sleeve shirts and these terrible satin pants. I thought Bon was really cute but the band was really awful. I’d seen enough good music by then to know crap when I heard it.

I did my own exploring and record collecting, but I also had a couple of boyfriends who introduced me to some great stuff. I met the fi guy at the same scout hall where I saw my fi gig. His name was Phillip and he stood out like the proverbials because he had long hair (meaning hair that grew very slightly past his ears). He looked really different and exciting to me. I was very taken with him. Phillip said he was tossing up between me and a girlfriend of mine who lived down the road, but he chose me in the end. (He probably flipped a coin.) We danced together and I think he bought me some punch, and I ended up dating him for a couple of years. It was all very innocent. We went to see bands together and would neck in the corner at the end of the night, but it never went any further than that. I actually split up with him a couple of times but he kept coming back. He turned up at Mum’s in a new sports car one evening and she convinced me to patch it up and go for a drive with him, which I reluctantly agreed to do. I split up with him again afterwards because he was a terrible driver.

By that stage, I had left school and joined the work- force. I went to business college when I was sixteen to learn typing and shorthand, then found myself a job at a family-owned whitegoods store. (The boss came round to meet my mother and assure her they’d take good care of me.) The best thing about working was that I suddenly had my own money. I could buy records, makeup and beer whenever I wanted, and pay for taxis to get home at the end of the night. Being financially independent meant a lot to me. I left the whitegoods store after six months and went to work in a lawyer’s office, typing up the dictation on old carbon copy paper, but I didn’t last long. I kept handing in typed documents full of gaps because I couldn’t read my own shorthand. Unsurprisingly, they sacked me. My next stop was the public service, at the Department of Motor Vehicles, typing and filing car registrations. I must have lifted my game at that point because I held onto that job for a while.

I became quite good friends with a girl at work called Andrea, who went op-shopping with me before op- shopping was in fashion and loved to draw nearly as much as I did. Andrea was a very capable, industrious kind of person; I’d go around to her house and find her up on the roof banging away at something or out the back, making a pair of shoes. She also had a horse. I found her up at the stables one day with a snake wrapped around her waist.

‘Do you like my live belt?’ She grinned.

Andrea was about six feet tall but she had a breathless, girlish way of talking. She was very beautiful, I thought, with her lovely olive skin. She became my closest friend, although we had very different personalities. I was in awe of her. I was very sensitive and Andrea was very practical. She was confident, whereas I felt awkward in social situations a lot of the time. The truth is, I had pretty low self-esteem, which is how I ended up dating The Bastard. When I was seventeen, my social life revolved around music. There were daytime and afternoon gigs and lots of shows in the evening, and the evening shows rolled into other things. You’d jump in the car and head off to a party for more drinking, more talk and more music, and inevitably you’d meet people who liked the same stuff as you. I met The Bastard at one of these parties. He was sitting in a corner with his mates, making sarcastic comments about the other party guests. I thought he looked really arty and different; he was wearing a strange quilted jacket he’d somehow pilfered from the costume department of Fiddler on the Roof. He was incredibly confident – he fancied himself quite the intellectual. I was naïve enough to be impressed.

The Bastard started chatting to me at the party and eventually came around to asking me out, but I’m not entirely sure why. We began dating, but he was never that enthusiastic about the relationship, a point he demonstrated repeatedly the whole time it was going on. I had no phone at Mum’s so I had to wait around for him to come and see me; sometimes he turned up and sometimes he didn’t. When he did come over, he was awkward as hell and clearly would have preferred to be somewhere else.

‘Your mother’s bathroom must be the only one in the world where you come out dirtier than when you went in,’ he once said.

I got properly drunk for the first time in The Bastard’s company and it was a pretty miserable experience. We were out at the pub with a group of his friends when he handed me a bottle of scotch.

‘See if you can drink it down to here.’ He grinned.

I didn’t want to lose face in front of the boys so I knocked it back, as instructed, and shortly afterwards was completely legless. The Bastard drove me home, rang the doorbell and took off as soon as my mother answered. Later, he introduced me to drugs. We took these things called Purple Hearts when I was drunk enough not to think twice about it, then The Bastard disappeared. I ended up sitting in a car with Andrea and her boyfriend out the front of Mum’s place in the early hours, chatting away until the morning milk was delivered.

Obviously I shouldn’t have liked The Bastard, but I did. He seemed to know a lot about everything, particularly art. He got me reading novels and took me to the South Australian Film Festival, and he signed me up to the Australian Record Club so I could keep on top of all the amazing music coming out of England.

It was the late sixties and the music scene had well and truly changed by then. Everyone was obsessed with Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and The Beatles’ White Album. That psychedelic rock sound hadn’t trickled down to the live music scene yet, but it was all you heard at parties. The Bastard was a big fan. I sat meekly next to him when we went out and watched him and his friends get stoned and talk endless hours of shit about the new sound coming out of the UK. He had great taste; he just wasn’t very nice.

The Bastard was the last guy I dated before Bon. I hate to even mention him, but the person I was when I met Bon Scott was deeply influenced by my relationship with the world’s shittiest boyfriend, in good ways and bad. On the one hand, he made me very guarded and fragile, and determined not to look stupid. On the other hand, he helped me to become quite headstrong and self-reliant. He took me to England, though he didn’t actually want me to be there.

In late 1969, when I was about nineteen, The Bastard went off to Singapore for a holiday, or at least that’s what he told me he was doing. He had actually moved to London, but he went to the trouble of writing fake letters and having friends in Singapore post them to me on his behalf. His father was outraged and let the truth slip when I went around to visit one day. I was angry and I was mortified. Unfortunately, I was also really heartbroken. (As a side- note, this didn’t stop me from having a revenge fling with one of The Bastard’s very respected acquaintances.)

The Bastard felt pretty awful for lying and getting caught, and he asked me to join him in London. And because I was a terrible idiot, I decided to go. I sold prac- tically everything I had to pay for the flight including the typewriter Mum had bought me.

‘Go and get it back!’ she cried. ‘I gave up smoking to pay for that thing!’

I had barely left Adelaide since I moved there as a child and London might as well have been the moon. I didn’t hesitate or ask for permission, mind you; I didn’t actually tell Mum I was going until after the ticket was booked. I thought of myself as quite a nervous and timid thing, but when it came down to it I was perfectly cool. I turned up at the airport with a miniskirt and a new set of luggage and boarded the flight without looking back. Mum was awestruck.

She said, ‘You got on that plane like you’d done it a hundred times before.’

I didn’t know what to be afraid of. I had no idea about other countries and cultures. We had a stopover in Bahrain and there I was in the miniskirt surrounded by Arabic men holding machine guns. It wouldn’t have occurred to me in a million years that my outfit wasn’t appropriate. I just thought it was fantastic, like being in a film.

London was an even bigger thrill. It was the tail end of the swinging sixties and I missed the whole Carnaby Street scene by a couple of years, but it was still an electrifying place to be. There were fascinating people everywhere you looked, not just the odd slightly unusual person who popped up in Adelaide. I loved the whole English pub scene with open fires and winter light coming through the stained-glass windows. I loved the markets on the Kensington high street, which were full of handicrafts and things that you’d never find in the shops. I loved the feeling of being self-sufficient, figuring out how to read the tube map and get myself around that massive city. I felt like I was part of something, without even having to try.

I worked as a live-in maid for a wealthy couple in Chelsea, burning rissoles and bumping their vacuum cleaner as I dragged it up and down the stairs. My flat was in the basement of their house and the windows were below street level. It was like climbing out of the earth every time I walked up the stairs and I felt this dread that I would never reach the open air. Adelaide was flat and wide and spacious, but London hunched over you. Every- thing was grey; the footpaths, the buildings, the sky. But it was exciting, too. I didn’t realise it until I left, but I was bored with the blandness and backwardness of Adelaide. London felt like the centre of the world.

The Bastard had a job at an art gallery, so he took me to the occasional art exhibition and to screenings at the British Film Institute. Mick Jagger’s Performance opened while we were in town and he got us tickets, and I saw more live music than I can remember. There were tons of gigs in Camden Town and in Soho bars, south of Oxford Street; Rod Stewart played with The Faces in a venue that was basically a big school hall.

As the year rolled on, we took trips around Britain, to Hampton Court Castle and Stratford-upon-Avon, then north up to Scotland to a place called Galashiels. In the summer, we went to Amsterdam and visited Anne Frank’s house, and I learned that there are places in the world where people have slabs of cold meat and cheese for break- fast instead of Weet-Bix. On another weekend, we hitched to Dover and met a young French lawyer on the ferry to Calais. He drove us into Paris in his convertible and put us up in his apartment on Rue Bayen, then ferried us from the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe to all these fantastic clubs and restaurants.

When we travelled together, The Bastard and I had a lot of fun. But there were times in London when I hardly felt like I even had a boyfriend. He lived with his mates in a dingy flat in West London, and spent most of his time with his head in a cloud of dope, listening to records and talking crap. People smoked and talked crap at parties back in Adelaide, but it was a laugh. In London, he’d get stoned and have a four-hour conversation about a guitar solo. It was incredibly tedious.

He rarely made plans with me and when he did he often wouldn’t turn up, or he’d make plans with other people and make it clear he didn’t want me tagging along. I would arrive somewhere to meet him, only to discover that he’d already left, and turn around to catch two tube trains home with my tail between my legs. Of course it seems obvious now that he wasn’t very interested in me, but he didn’t want me seeing anyone else either. I met a lot of lovely guys in London, funnily enough, but The Bastard had a habit of showing up at just the wrong moment and treating me like his property.

As the year dragged on, I got tired of him. I left my job as a maid and went to work as a typist at Australia House, and moved in with a fantastic group of girls who were all my own age. We played loud music and danced around the flat, and went out to pubs and parties together. The longer I stayed in London, the less I saw of my boyfriend, and the less I really cared. Christmas rolled around and he was nowhere to be seen, but I was happier than I had been in a long while. It snowed on Christmas Day. I was in the fl with the girls trying to cook a turkey when these little fl came drifting down past the window, and I was so excited I ran out into the street. There were people standing around outside the local pub, singing Christmas carols and drinking beer and watching it snow. I waved at them with a big, silly grin on my face. It was absolutely magic.

I decided to go home in the new year. There was no drama at all, no big announcement; I just told The Bastard I was leaving, and he shrugged to let me know that he didn’t really care. I realised in that moment how unpleasant he was. I was more than ready to walk away.

I was ashamed that I’d followed a guy who didn’t love me halfway around the world, but I didn’t regret going to London. It was a huge eye-opener for me. I had been to those magic, far-off places and seen them with my own eyes, which was a rare experience back in those days. I didn’t think it made me any more interesting, but I felt like I was my own person. If nothing else, I knew I could take care of myself. And I would take care of myself, espe- cially when it came to men. I wouldn’t let anyone take me for a fool, even though I felt foolish. I had all the pride in the world, but absolutely no confidence.

The Art of Belonging by Hugh Mackay – Extract

Community magic

The Southwood Community Association’s executive committee is in session, with Councillor Dom Fin in the chair. This used to be called the Southwood Progress Association, until a property developer called Hank Thyssen gained control of it and came up with a series of proposals he thought could be justified in the name of ‘progress’, but which everyone else found repugnant. Like his proposal to drain Southwood Ponds and turn the area into a race track for dirt bikes, with Thyssen himself holding the concession. Or his plan to close part of Railway Parade and turn it into a plaza with market stalls controlled by his wife’s company. Or his idea for a design competition to encourage international architects and urban planners to submit ideas for a massive redevelopment of Southwood Central.‘We don’t have to award a contract to any of them, but we might attract some fresh thinking and get some useful ideas,’ Hank Thyssen thought.

That was the point at which the mayor of Southwood, Mary Kippax, stepped in. Supported by everyone on the council except Mrs Thyssen, she decided to abolish the Progress Association an replace it with a Community Association of eight members, elected annually, each member representing a particular constituency – sporting clubs, youth organisations, service clubs, churches and charities, the business chamber, schools and adult education groups, the creative and performing arts, and the historical society.

The centenary of Southwood is rapidly approaching, and the Community Association is pondering ways of celebrating the occasion. Dom Fin, the deputy mayor, is responding to a suggestion from the representative of the churches.

‘Thank you for the thought, Pastor Jim, but really . . . cart before the horse. Know what I mean? We’re not sufficiently advanced to take up your offer of a festival service out there at Southwood East church. We haven’t yet really decided what form the festival is going to take. We haven’t even decided if there’s going to be a festival and, if there is, whether we’re going to call it a festival. Know what I mean?’

Jim Glasson, the elderly minister of the Southwood East Community Church, slumps in his chair, fighting familiar feelings of frustration. He couldn’t help noticing Dom’s use of the phrase ‘out there’, as if Southwood East, a mere ten minutes away, was too remote from the action to be a suitable venue for a festival service. Jim recalls the Southwood of old, when he was growing up here and churchgoing was pretty close to the norm. Mainly Protestant, back then. But the combination of a sharp drop in church attendance all over Australia and the emergence of Roman Catholics as the dominant denominational group, thanks to an infl of Italian, Spanish and Vietnamese migrants, has eroded support for churches like Jim’s.

Jim looks around the table at his fellow committee members, but they are all avoiding eye contact – even Judith MacGregor, one of his own parishioners who, in this context, is representing the Southwood Players. Judith is widely expected to run for council at the next local government election. Jim worries that she might be overcommitted.

Now Judith is speaking: ‘Well, let me say, for the record, that I think there should be a festival, we should call it a festival, and we should start planning right now. I can see a street parade, a historical pageant – perhaps some re-enactment of the pioneering days of Southwood – a choral festival with some interpretive dance . . . what is it, Marcus?’

Judith has become conscious of a groan from the other end of the table. Marcus Li, the representative of the education sector, has his hands over his face.

‘Marcus?’ Dom Fin says kindly. He admires Judith’s energy but does not find her an easy person to deal with and is wary of her increasingly evident hunger for power.

‘Please, please, please . . . no re-enactments. Please! Haven’t we all had enough of re-enactments?’ Marcus Li appeals to the group for support.

It comes from an unlikely source: Geraldine O’Brien, the chair of Southwood Historical and Heritage Society (that cumbersome name the result of a merger between two falling memberships). ‘I couldn’t agree more. We must do our best to save ourselves from public embarrassment. I don’t mind if the Players want to stage some well-proven period piece, but I would draw the line at untrained local people – or schoolchildren, even worse – dressing up and taking part in some tedious ceremony that we imagine will inspire us all to think fond thoughts of the real estate company that developed Southwood in the first place. There’s nothing particularly noble or heroic about our origins, Judith. Pioneers? No way.We were just another suburb created by a smart developer who saw an opportunity and grabbed it.What’s to re-enact?’

Judith MacGregor is smiling patiently in the direction of Dom Fin, as if she’s merely indulging all this peripheral talk. ‘Chair, if I may?’

Dom nods.

‘Forget I ever mentioned re-enactment. I’ll wash my mouth out. I was simply throwing out ideas.’

‘Yes, well throw that one out,’ says a barely audible male voice – probably the man from the soccer club, Judith thinks.

‘As I was saying, perhaps a music-hall type evening, perhaps a display of fashions over the hundred years of our history. Fireworks, dancing, floral displays, street parties, vintage cars of the period, old photographs, books . . .’

Books?’ Marcus Li is on red alert once more.

Dom Fin intervenes.‘Thank you, Judith. I think we get the idea and we’re grateful to you for coming up with such an extensive list of possibilities. Others might want to come up with some more . . . er, original ideas, too. Perhaps it’s time to wrap this up and we can take these thoughts back to our various organisations for discussion. There’s not a lot of time. If we’re going to stage something in the spring, we need to decide whether to focus on a particular weekend, or perhaps a week, like Southwood Centenary Festival Week – I’m just putting that out there. Or people might prefer to spread it out over a longer period.We meet again in a month.Thank you, all.’

As they are leaving the meeting, Marcus Li and Jim Glasson fall into step beside each other and Marcus says: ‘Can I have a word with you, Jim?’

‘Of course,’ Jim replies,‘let’s have a cup of coffee.’

They find a corner table at E.K., where Southwood’s best coffee is served, and settle in. ‘What is it?’ says Jim, intrigued by this approach from Marcus, a man with a good reputation for his work as deputy principal at Southwood High, and the moving spirit behind a new community garden for refugees.

‘I’m not a great committee man, I’ve decided,’ Marcus replies. ‘I’m used to making decisions and getting on with it. Not that I don’t consult with my colleagues before I decide something, but I’m not sure I’ve got time for all this wheel-spinning that goes on in meetings like the one we’ve just endured.What’s the point?’

Jim sips his coffee and looks into the face of the younger man. Energetic, impatient, creative . . . just the kind of talent

Southwood needs, he thinks.‘I’ll tell you what I’ve found, over the years. When it comes to boards and committees associated with volunteer work, process is everything. In some ways, the process of making a decision is more important than the decision itself. Does that sound crazy? I’ll tell you why I say that: these people are all volunteers, which means they have good hearts. Oh, they might be ambitious, but mostly they’re here to make the world a better place – or this neck of the woods, anyway. So they need to be heard.They think very seriously about these things; this might be the one place where they feel they really can make a difference. A surprising number of people don’t feel like that about their paid work, I’ve found. So when they get involved in some community project, they want to shine.They want to contribute. So they tend to insist on having their say, even if it’s been said by someone else already, as you saw in that meeting just now.Yes, it may take a bit longer to arrive at a decision – and sometimes we never get there and someone just has to take the ball and run with it.’

‘I guess I’ll have to change into a different gear when I come here.’

‘Exactly.Well put.’

‘By the way, Jim – do you mind if I call you Jim? – you looked a bit grumpy when Dom stomped on your offer. Is there a bit of history I need to know?’

‘No, not really. I made the offer in good faith, no pun intended, but I guess it was a bit pushy. Dom knows I’m always on the lookout for ways of putting our little operation on the map. Just indulge an old bloke, will you?’

Marcus smiles.‘Thanks for the coffee. My shout next time.’

Come and hover with me in a helicopter above Southwood. What do you see? At first glance, it looks pretty formless, doesn’t it? Just another vast suburban sprawl. Could be anywhere, really.

Red roofs as far as the eye can see, interrupted by occasional green or blue tiles, with patches of grey in the newer areas. In Southwood, ‘newer’ means they were built thirty or forty years ago, when the emerging architecture of domestic housing demanded open-plans inside and anything but red on the roof. (There was also a bold attempt to reintroduce corrugated iron to the suburbs – not only for roofs but water tanks – but that initiative failed to impress Southwood Council.)

Southwood has no riverbank or harbour’s edge to mark its boundary, no mountains – not even much undulation, apart from a prominent hill to the north-west. A few arterial roads stand out boldly from the rest of the streets; a four-lane highway sweeps past its western side; a railway line; a series of small lakes surrounded by houses laid out in an unconventional array, like clusters, quite different from the inexorable grid pattern that chops the rest of Southwood into more traditional blocks. A crisscross of electricity wires running from pole to ugly pole. A large retail precinct.A scattering of slightly taller buildings – offices perhaps, or apartments – but no towers. Cars everywhere.

It almost looks like a caricature of a suburb; a stereotype. Standard three-bedroom housing stock dominates, sliced and diced, row upon row, so similar as to appear homogeneous from this height. Streets, mostly straight, lined with an assortment of parked vehicles, including trailers, boats and a few cars without wheels, up on blocks. Unrelieved by much vegetation, though there are thousands of front lawns and backyards down there, many with swimming pools, and a few playing fields and parks dotted about.

We know from our pre-flight briefing that about 75,000 people live here. Because we can’t make out any natural boundaries, it’s hard to know where Southwood begins and ends, or how large the area is – about 30 square kilometres, we were told, but unless you’re a geographer, that doesn’t convey much. Perhaps it’s easier to grasp that there are about 30,000 dwellings in Southwood, most of them detached house-and-gardens, but there’s a steadily growing supply of medium-density housing, too – low-rise flats and some modern approximations of terrace houses, now called ‘townhouses’ to add a touch of grandeur to a low-cost option.

It’s not as crowded as an inner-city residential area with its teeming street life; not as spread out as some suburbs on the outer rim of the metropolitan area that strive to maintain a semi-rural identity, with occasional paddocks where children’s ponies graze, brightly painted barns housing luxury cars rather than hay, gravel drives, lofts and mini-orchards. Southwood used to boast that kind of thing, though in rougher and more authentic form than the newer, more cultivated versions. But that was a hundred years ago. Now, although there’s an echo of its heritage in the area called Southwood Fields, it has become unambiguously, uncompromisingly, unfashionably . . . suburbia: there’s no other name for it.

And what’s wrong with that?

The suburbs – disparagingly,‘the burbs’ – get a bad rap, which is unfair to the billions of people around the Western world who live in them. Most of us live in them, because it’s affordable, convenient and pleasant. Yet suburb dwellers are constantly being told their lives would be richer and more rewarding if only they would sell up and move to an apartment or a terrace closer to the action – where ‘action’ is defined as inner-city living. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, they are urged to ‘go bush’ – which might mean those semi-rural areas on the metropolitan rim, or it might mean moving to a regional town or village where it is assumed that life is simpler, people are nicer, communities function more effectively and mental health will be restored. Get onto acres somewhere and become self-sufficient!

Depending how far out you go, there may be other complications not always spoken about: drought, flies, mosquitoes, deadly spiders and snakes; intractable unemployment; an economy in thrall to commodity prices; limited access to medical, educational and financial services; higher rates of obesity, suicide and alcohol addiction; more respiratory disease due to a combination of pollens and a haze of agricultural chemicals. (In fact, most people will stay right where they are, in the suburbs, while cheerfully embracing the symbols meant to evoke rural culture and frontier myths: blue jeans, rugged boots on city pavements, plaid shirts fit for a bit of hunting and gathering at the supermarket or the hardware store, and a growing preference for SUVs that shout or, more often, whisper,‘off-road’.)

If you’re not prepared to swap that dreary suburban existence for inner-city stimulation or bucolic charm, then get yourself to the coast and feel as if you’re permanently on holiday.You might have to adapt to the unique problems of saltwater rust, the influx of tourists in summer, the threat of rising ocean levels and the increased incidence of storm surges (plus the standard problems faced by non-urban communities), but it will be worth it for those sea breezes and the ozone in your lungs.


Nowhere is perfect. Moving to this or that place won’t transform your life – many people who make the sea-change eventually move back to the comfort and familiarity of the suburb where their friends and neighbours sustained them more than they had realised.Which would most of us prefer: to be lonely in a beauty spot, or nurtured by a thriving community in a visually dreary suburb? We all know the answer to that (though, naturally, we’d prefer to have a bit of both, thanks). People rarely advocate suburban living for its clever compromise, combining semi-urban convenience with more space to breathe and a garden to tend.The suburbs are more often ridiculed for being neither urban enough nor tranquil, spacious and beautiful enough.

Yet if we were to swoop low over Southwood – low enough to glimpse the lives being lived under all these red roofs; low enough to sense what’s really going on here – we’d get a very different impression. Southwood, like every place of human habitation, is a rich and complex cultural phenomenon. Yes, it’s one of those much-maligned suburbs; but aren’t the suburbs where most poems are written, most cups of sugar borrowed, most fl wers grown, most dreams fulfilled, most passions stirred, most sexual relationships consummated, most babies conceived, most marriages celebrated? It’s the suburbs where most parents feel those primitive surges of joy, swelling like silken banners in the heart.The suburbs are where faith is most often tested by experience, and where the most painful lesson of all – that love’s work is hard work – is usually learnt. Suburbs are where the joy of sex is most often experienced (and its disappointments most often faced), where most intima- tions of mortality are first detected, and where a feeling of contentment – yearned for, yet unexpected – most often descends on people.

This is not because suburbs are better or worse places to live than anywhere else.All those things happen in country towns, too; they happen in inner-city terraces and apartments, in caravan parks and fishing villages. But the suburbs have the numbers.

Which is to say: most life happens in the suburbs.

Kendall Street, in Southwood Fields, had been a close community in the 1970s, full of families with young children. As the children grew up and moved elsewhere, some of the residents sold the family home and moved to apartments or to smaller houses closer to the city. Some moved interstate to be near their grandchildren. Others stayed to watch a new generation of families arrive and begin the cycle all over again.

When a young Vietnamese couple, Jason Ng and his heavily pregnant wife Victoria, moved into number 8, their next-door neighbours on both sides welcomed them, but Victoria and Jason were both working and there had not been much time to connect with other people in the street before their baby was born.They had both come to Australia as students and then been granted permanent residency, so they had no family in Australia.

When their baby died in his cot, aged three months, the young couple felt their world had collapsed.

They were devastated by shock and grief. They called their parents – Victoria’s in Hanoi and Jason’s in Bien Hoa – and both mothers agreed to come out, though it would take a little time to organise. Sympathetic friends dropped in, rendered speechless by sadness.

The appearance of the ambulance had triggered an immediate reaction in Kendall Street.The next-door neighbours had insisted on bringing Victoria and Jason into their home for a cup of tea and something to eat. Those neighbours had been phoned by various other people in the street enquiring what had happened.

Over the following days, a stream of local people came to the house to introduce themselves and offer support. One did some shopping; one mowed the lawn; several prepared simple meals and dropped them in, ready for heating.

At first,Victoria and Jason, inconsolable, didn’t know whether they wanted to be left alone or embraced by these kindly strangers. But the trickle of visitors came anyway – no one stayed for long, but people felt it was important to make sure everything possible was being done for the bereaved couple.When it was decided that a service would be held in the funeral director’s chapel, the street turned up and packed the place out.

Weeks passed. Waves of grief still engulfed the young couple without warning, but they gradually embraced the idea that life could go on; must go on. They were comforted by the kindness of their neighbours. When the two mothers fi arrived, they met several of the families in Kendall Street and were assured that Victoria and Jason would never feel alone or neglected here.

Tragedies and disasters often have the effect of bringing a community closer together (see chapter 9). But, whatever our circumstances may be, the natural human tendency is to seek the security of being woven into the social fabric.

Like most species, we humans are great congregators. See how we cluster into suburbs like Southwood. If we were to fly in our helicopter away from the city and hover over a regional town or a rural village, we’d be struck by the same thing. Most people choose to live in close proximity to each other.

Yes, there are hermits and isolates who hate companionship and really need to be alone or just with a partner or a dog, but most of us hanker after the herd. There are people whose work forces them into social isolation – but mostly they’ll go into a town somewhere when their week’s work is done, seeking companionship, connection, community.

That magical word community conjures up the deepest truth about us: that we are social creatures by nature. We belong in social settings. We like being around other people. We work with colleagues, often in tight-knit groups.We play together.We drink together (who chooses to drink alone except a bruised soul or a drunk?).We like to eat in company with others (so if we live alone, we’ll often eat out – see chapter 4). We go to meetings. We join clubs and choirs and committees. We go to church for social as well as spiritual reasons (see chapter 5). We like to congregate in small groups that satisfy our herd instinct.We need networks – our families and our friends – to be accessible in the flesh, and not just online or acknowledged in an exchange of Christmas cards.

The great myth of materialism (and its most pleasing illusion) is that we are defined by the objects we possess, including not only our cars and clothes but our houses. The truth about us is quite different. In fact, we are defined by community: we belong to each other in ways we can never ‘belong’ to a house or a car, a pair of shoes or a piece of jewellery. Those things belong to us, but that’s a one-way street unless we have surrendered so utterly to materialism that we’ve actually become slaves to our desire to possess. Materialism seduces us as successfully as it does by appear-ing to confuse subjects and objects: we – you and I, living persons are subjects, but the things we possess are mere This blurring of the distinction between subjects and objects gets us into terrible trouble in other ways, too: if we commodify people, treating them as objects to be possessed or manipulated, we diminish both them and ourselves in the process. Place – a house, a street, a suburb or town – matters so deeply to us not because it is a precious object in itself but because it symbolises the fact that we belong to a family, or a community.

We become deeply attached to particular places because of the life we associate with them. The most lavish house in the world will ultimately seem pointless and empty – except as the equivalent of a velvet-lined cave that provides shelter – unless it works as a symbol of our connectedness. This is why the true meaning of ‘home’ has little to do with bricks and mortar. Indigenous people’s attachment to the land – expressed as a quasi-mystical sense of place points to the social significance of those places, their meanings for a tribal group, their cultural and ancestral significant , not their significance as a pile of rocks or a running stream, per se.

We are not only defined but actually sustained by our social networks.We thrive on being part of a community – whether that’s familial, social, residential, intellectual, cultural, political, religious, professional or vocational. In the end, it makes no real sense – no biological sense, no psychological sense – for us to dwell on our identity as individuals. That’s not who we are. We’re tribal. We’re social.We’re communal.We need to belong.

But here’s the rub: communities don’t just happen.We have to create them and build them. That means participating in the life of the community – socially, commercially, culturally. It means, among other things, paying our fair share of the taxes that fund the infrastructure the community relies on. (In fact, arranging your affairs so you can avoid paying tax in the place where you live is a powerful declaration of a desire not to belong.) After all, communities don’t automatically survive – history is littered with examples of towns that died; neighbourhoods that ceased to function as communities and became dangerous, hostile places; communities that lost their cultural soul, or their commercial heart; entire civilisations that crumbled.Yes, we’re sustained by our communities, but they don’t have a life of their own: we must nurture them. For communities to survive, we must engage with them and attend to them.

If the deepest truth about us is that we are social creatures by nature, then it follows that social isolation is unhealthy for us. Even a less-than-optimal daily dose of social contact can have a deleterious effect on our wellbeing, our mental acuity and our outlook of life: nothing keeps us on our toes like random, unplanned conversations. Reduced Social Interaction (let’s call it the other kind of RSI) carries a hefty penalty, and online contact doesn’t quite measure up as a substitute (see chapter 7).

That’s why being deliberately excluded from a community – banished, excommunicated – is the toughest punishment of all. Even being accidentally excluded – by carelessness or thought- lessness on the part of our neighbours, for instance, or being overlooked when a work colleague is inviting everyone but us out to lunch – can induce feelings not only of isolation, but of alienation and even worthlessness.

Allowing our neighbourhoods and communities to disintegrate is not only foolish: it diminishes our very nature as humans. Our primary responsibility to our species is not merely to reproduce, but to create and nurture these fragile yet precious communities that sustain us. For all their tensions and difficulties, for all their inevitable rifts and rivalries, communities give us the juices we need if we are to realise our full potential as human beings.

Whether in Southwood or any of the millions of other densely settled suburbs around the world, or in cities and towns, or in villages clinging to the coast, nestled in the hills or dotting the wide plains, we are at our best when we belong. Belonging is one of the deepest sources of human fulfilment. Welcoming someone into a group is therefore one of the most warmly appreciated of the gifts we can offer each other. Knowing I belong implies that I am taken seriously; I am connected; I am supported. Part of the magic of communities is that, however imperceptibly, they shape us to fit them.That applies as much to a neighbourhood as to a political party, a church, a school, a workplace, a club or a choir. Any community we belong to – any setting where we gradually come to feel ‘at home’ – will make a rich contribution to the story of who we are. None of us is born a blank slate: we have too much genetic inheritance to claim such a thing. But the story that gradually unfolds on that slate is mostly written by others, not by us. We are the authors of each other’s stories through the influence we have on each other, and the way we respond to each other. Each of our stories is unique, but the subtext is universal – it is about finding the answer to just one question: Where do I belong?

Not all our impulses are directed towards building up the community, and not all neighbourhoods encourage or foster the spirit of community. We humans are caught in the crossfi e between two confl       sides of our evolutionary heritage: we are selfl         and cooperative by nature, because we need to maintain the communities that sustain us; yet we are also selfi and competitive by nature, because we are driven by the need to ensure our personal survival and that of our families.We are both nurturers and fighters.

It might not feel like a war within us, but the tension is ever- present. The outcome depends on which side of our nature we choose to nurture, to reinforce, to encourage; which inner army we choose to feed. Each of us is capable of behaving nobly; each of us is equally capable of ugly, insensitive behaviour. Some circumstances bring out the best in us; some provoke the worst. Our restraining moral sense is community-based; our recklessness is usually all our own work (though gangs can be reckless, too). We are both nice and nasty. All of us.

Selfish impulses can damage the spirit of a community, such as when we become obsessed with accumulating wealth at the expense of others; when the drive for success overwhelms our moral scruples, or when the desire for power or status erodes our willingness to respect other people’s rights and needs; when our aggressive tendencies are let off the leash in the form of prejudice against ‘otherness’; when we give way to jealousy, rage, greed or sexual predation.

At one of Southwood’s most ‘desirable’ addresses – Liesl Crescent, Southwood Rise – lives Angie Koutsoukas, forty-two, married, no children. She is a public relations consultant in a city fi m. Her next-door neighbour is Bill Ritchie, fifty-five, married, two daughters aged twenty-eight and twenty-five, neither living at home.

Angie’s husband, Michael, knows his wife is deeply unsatisfied. He suspects she actually despises him and his work (he’s a mid-level corporate lawyer). He, in turn, fi it hard to take her work seriously, and he assumes she realises that. But he knows she loves their house, their cars, their exotic holidays and their easy access to the cultural life of the city. Their personal life is chilly but civil. Michael holds out the hope that, one day, Angie might rediscover the passion for him she once appeared to feel. He adores her, and he can’t help noticing that many other men adore her, too.

Bill Ritchie’s wife, Petra, has a fulfilling professional life as a teacher at one of Southwood’s seven primary schools. She knows her husband is bored with their marriage, but that’s part of a bigger problem: she senses that he’s bored with his work, too (he’s a solicitor in a suburban practice twenty minutes’ drive from Southwood). He’s clearly bored with their almost non-existent social life, short of male friends and disappointed that his sister has moved interstate and doesn’t keep in touch with him. (She occasionally phones Petra but rarely asks to speak to Bill.)

Petra often finds Bill standing at their front window, staring into the street, or sitting at his study desk, gazing out the window at nothing but the side of the Koutsoukases’ house, barely three metres away. She has wondered if he’s depressed, but has concluded the problem really is simple boredom.Yet he snarled at her when she suggested inviting some of her colleagues and their partners for a Sunday barbecue, and he sneered when she proposed enrolling together in one of the courses being offered at the library, so she has given up trying to provide the stimulation she believes he needs. He tells her he doesn’t need friends.

The Koutsoukases and the Ritchies do not socialise with each other, nor with anyone else in their street. It’s a street where people come and go by car.There’s very little footpath traffic, and the few children who live in Liesl Crescent are driven everywhere by their parents.Though both the husbands are lawyers, this hasn’t drawn them together. They nod in acknowledgement when they see each other, and occasionally exchange a few words when they are putting out the garbage or watering the garden, but nothing more. The wives chat to each other in the polite way of neighbours who feel no warmth towards each other.They would all say they were lucky to have ‘nice’ neighbours, and they take a certain pride in the fact that they actually know each other, since many people in Southwood Rise and elsewhere in Southwood say they don’t even know their neighbours’ names. Petra and Angie would never meet for coffee at the weekend, though Petra occasionally does with other women in Southwood.

Bill Ritchie is consumed by lust for Angie Koutsoukas. When he gazes out his study window, he sees more than the side of a house: he sees the window of Michael and Angie’s bedroom and, on a few recent occasions, he has seen Angie preparing for bed through the partially-open slats of a venetian blind angled to his advantage. If it happens much more, he will be tempted to conclude that Angie knows what she is doing.

Neither Angie nor Bill feel they belong where they are. They don’t feel comfortable, content or fulfi They both look beyond their marriages and their neighbourhood for some half-imagined source of fulfilment that eludes them. Angie feels some connection with the people she works with, and with some of her clients: that’s a kind of community, but the members of it keep changing. Bill’s workplace is more stable, but his relationships with his colleagues are confined almost entirely to the professional level. He doesn’t discuss sport or music or politics with them. He doesn’t enquire after his colleagues’ kids, or volunteer anything about his own. He lunches alone. He fantasises endlessly about Angie and some imaginary paradise where they will end up together, yet he barely knows her. They have exchanged only a dozen sentences in the year they have been living next door to each other, but each of those fleeting encounters has been, for Bill, electrifying. And from the warmth of Angie’s smile and the intensity of their eye contact, he senses it might be the same for her.

All over Southwood, there are people who appreciate the sustenance and the discipline – and sometimes even the chaos and distractions – of being part of a functioning community. Those are the people who know how to engage, but not everyone does. Some residents of the district don’t even realise what treasures are on offer. In single-person households, in two-person households, and even in many three- or four-person households, the need for connection with a social network runs deep, but is not always recognised for what it is: the answer to one of our most insistent human yearnings.

It almost goes without saying that the people who are drawing most deeply on the resources of Southwood are those who are contributing most to it. Those who are nurtured by their neighbours and by the life of the community are those who, consciously or not, are themselves nurturing the life of that community.Those who think the place has no soul haven’t yet realised it might be their own soul that’s missing.

In primitive tribal societies, there is nowhere to hide from the community: it’s everywhere; there’s nowhere else to be but in it, part of it. Nor is there anywhere to sulk or smoulder if you belong to a large and rowdy household; you might need to go out occasionally to find some peace, but you’re inextricably part of the dynamic life of the domestic herd. In smaller households, people often do hide from each other, because the emotional temperature is too high; the focus – particularly on the one or two kids – is too intense. Being part of a larger community protects us from that intensity and relieves us of the burden of having to take too much responsibility for each other’s wellbeing.

‘It takes a village to raise a child’, yes, and we ignore that wisdom at our children’s peril. If we insulate the child from the village and try to do all the raising on our own, when will the child learn about complexity, diversity, ambiguity? How will the child learn to meet the challenge of difference? Schools are helpful socialisers, but they are only one part of the ‘village’: the neighbours we never chose are a crucial factor in the process of developing the resilience and the tolerance we will need if we are to learn how to fulfi our destiny as social creatures.

It’s not only children: it takes a village to keep an adult sane and sensible, too. The French Catholic existentialist Gabriel Marcel (1889–1973) claimed that the reality of our personal existence could only be fulfilled through our engagement with communal life. Marcel believed – and who would disagree? – that if we position ourselves (or are forced) outside a community, we tend to become obsessed with ourselves and our own needs. Self- absorption, self-pity and self-indulgence are the sure signs of a person not engaged with a community.

The US psychotherapist Carl Rogers (1902–87) had precisely the same view. He found that when his patients came to a full realisation of who they were, it always included the sense that they were essentially social creatures who belonged in groups, who needed networks, and who thrived on being part of a community. The Australian social analyst, Richard Eckersley, has put the point rather more metaphysically in ‘Redefining the Self ’ – the sidebar to a paper titled ‘Whatever Happened to Western

Civilization?’ (The Futurist, November–December 2012):

When I was at school we were taught that the atom was made up of solid particles, with electrons whizzing around the nucleus like planets orbiting the sun. Now, we think of the atom as more like a fuzzy cloud of electrical charges. Similarly, we currently think of the self as a discrete, biological being with various needs it seeks to satisfy. Like atoms combining into molecules, we form and dissolve bonds with other separate selves to create and terminate relationships. Sociologists talk of modern society as [comprising] ‘atomized’ individuals.

What if we were to see the self not as a separate physical entity, but as a fuzzy cloud of relational forces and fields? This would be a self of many relationships, inextricably linking us to other people and other things and entities. Some are close and intense, as in a love affair or within families; some are more distant and diffuse, as in a sense of community or place or national or ethnic identity; and some may be more subtle, but still powerful, as in a spiritual connection or a love of nature.

. . .Transforming how we see the self in this way – as a fuzzy cloud of relationships – would change profoundly how we see our relationships to others and to the world . . . It brings us closer to how indigenous people see the self, and represents one way that scientific and spiritual views can be compatible.

In an era of rampant individualism, we have often lost sight of our nature as social creatures. Seeing ourselves in the way Eckersley suggests might help us recognise our inescapable interconnectedness and that, in turn, might encourage us to accept our responsibilities to the communities that sustain us.The neighbourhood can be a magic place, but the magic comes from us, as well as to us.

Community and morality

In cities, towns and suburbs all around the Western world, the same concern is being aired: do we look out for each other as much as we used to? Are neighbourhoods functioning as well as they did in the past?

Some of this might be good old-fashioned nostalgia, but there’s a sufficiently persistent pattern of concern to warrant some investigation. And the starting point is to recognise that the two most common complaints about ‘decline’ in Western societies are inextricably linked. First: Our communities are not functioning as well as they once did. Second: Our shared values are not as clear or strong as they once were; the idea of ‘right and wrong’ is more slippery than it used to be. How can you separate those two things? The moral sense is, after all, a social sense: we develop our moral codes and systems out of the experience of learning how to get along with other people – fi st in the family, then in the classroom and the playground, and fi in the wider community. It’s not the values we’re taught that shape our true morality: it’s what works in practice.

Cohesive communities produce coherent moral systems. So communities are not just places where we can belong; they are also places where we learn to tell right from wrong and distinguish good from bad. Communities are our moral teachers and, when they’re working well, they’re also our moral guardians.

❛It’s a funny thing – the kids that cause most trouble in Southwood Fields are the ones we don’t see much, the ones we don’t really know. I remember when I was growing up in a country town, everybody seemed to know everybody and that put a sort of pressure on you when you were a kid. A good sort of pressure, though. Made you realise that things you might want to do – silly things – had consequences for other people, and those other people might be someone your mum and dad knew.

We got into various scrapes – what kid doesn’t? – but you always knew people were keeping a bit of an eye on you. ‘Oh, you’re Eric’s boy, aren’t you?’ So then you were identified, tagged; it was a bit like carrying your ID around with you.

To some extent it’s the same around here.There are some kids you recognise, or you’ve seen them with their parents, or you know where they live. And that helps. Not that you want to be spying on kids all the time, but it’s often for their own good. If you can see they’re in a jam of some kind, you know who they are and where to take them.

In some parts of Southwood, you never see the kids outside – or not in the street, anyway.Their parents drive them everywhere and you’d never get to know them unless you happened to have kids around the same age. I think that’s a pity. How can they feel part of the place if they don’t know their own neighbours?

Of course, it’s not just kids. We all rely on each other a bit, don’t we? To keep an eye on things? And there’s no doubt you’re more likely to do the right thing by people you know. I often think that about graffiti – there’s a bit of that up at Southwood Central.Would those kids be doing that to someone they know? Would they be doing it if they knew we knew who they were and who their parents were?

I just don’t get the feeling that people care about each other as much as they used to.

Want to hear the worst example of what I’m talking about? Just a few blocks away from here, still in Southwood Fields, an old man died in his house. This was not a man I knew, and it didn’t happen in my street, but we all heard about it. He died in his house and no one noticed for two weeks. Two weeks! Can you imagine that? I’m not talking about trying to imagine the stench when the police fi   went in and found him. I’m talking about the fact that no one noticed he wasn’t around. No one noticed the newspapers piling up on his front step, or the mail spilling out of his letterbox. I don’t think it would happen in our street – we’re all pretty alert if someone is sick, or hasn’t appeared for a day or two.You knock on the door or phone them, just to say,‘Haven’t seen you around – I just wanted to make sure you’re alright. Is everything okay?’ No one’s going to be bothered by that. It’s alright for people who’ve got family and that, but a surprising number of people live on their own around here, especially older people or people licking their wounds after a

break-up.They’re the ones you’ve got to look out for.❜

Morality is only ever about one thing: how we treat each other. In The Good Life (2013) I expressed it like this:

Morality can never be a solo performance. You can be comfort- able on your own; you can be rich on your own; you can have bright ideas or tinker with inventions on your own; you can sail around the world or cross the Sahara on your own (though if you get into trouble, you might be glad to know other people who think your survival matters); you can even be happy on your own. You can lead a blameless, exciting or passionate life on your own, but you can’t lead a good life on your own, because morality is about our interactions with each other. It makes no sense to consider the good life in isolation.

When communities fragment or disintegrate, the one certain casualty is their moral standards.That’s why we are generally at our worst, morally speaking, when we live in segregated or divided societies – such as the years of South Africa’s policy of apartheid or the US’s racial segregation – or when the fabric of a community is frayed. (William Golding’s great novel The Lord of the Flies is, in essence, the story of what happens when the constraints of a cohesive society are removed.) If you think morality is in decline, the first and most logical place to look for an explanation would be to the life of our neighbourhoods and communities: are they in danger of fragmenting, or is this all a myth?

Take a dispassionate look at the state of contemporary Western society and you will certainly identify some trends that might be expected to erode the cohesiveness of neighbourhoods. Changes in our patterns of marriage and divorce would be one factor: if marriage is becoming a less stable institution, this may well threaten the stability of local communities. High rates of marriage breakdown imply high rates of family disruption and that implies some fracture of social networks.

Unless we manage it very carefully, it’s obvious that children can suffer when their family falls apart. Imagine how it must be, at a young age, to find yourself suddenly caught up in the disruptions of regular access visits that unplug you from one parent, one home and one micro-community and plug you into another, sometimes with acrimonious exchanges between your parents at the changeover. In Australia, about half a million children are involved in these regular back-and-forth movements between their separated parents’ homes. Not all of those are traumatic or even unpleasant for the children involved, but all of them are disruptive. Some children who grow up with this kind of instability will learn to take comings and goings in their stride, and might become more socially and emotionally adaptable as a result. Others might react quite differently – feeling insecure and hesitant about forming close relationships because of a lurking fear of further emotional upheaval. Some will be grateful to their parents for managing a difficult situation sensitively, and for continuing to love and nurture them in a way that protected their feeling of emotional security.

Others may resent parents who had seemed to place their own needs above the needs of their children.

As time passes, all these reactions will be carried into the adult community – some as resources and some as emotional baggage. They will become part of the social fabric.

Here’s another potentially fragmenting factor: low birthrates. The low birthrate in most Western countries (well below the replacement level of 2.1 babies per woman) has an inevitable impact on communities, since kids are often the social lubricant that facilitates contact between their parents.

Many other factors may be contributing to the trend: the rise of the two-income household – generally welcomed as a sign of the liberation of women from domestic oppression – means that, in most households, both partners are absent from their local neighbourhood by day and busy with domestic matters at weekends. The increasing mobility of the population means we are less likely to stay in one home for a lifetime – or even for a long time – than our parents and grandparents were, which might make us feel less committed to the long-haul business of nurturing relationships within the local neighbourhood. Almost universal car ownership reduces public transport use and local footpath traffi – both effects tend to reduce the accidental encounters that traditionally helped to maintain social contact between neighbours. And increased reliance on information technology draws us into online communities that may distract us from our connections with the local neighbourhood (see chapter 7).

That’s by no means a comprehensive list, but there are clearly many reasons to suspect that Western social cohesion has been under threat. Which means we need to compensate; we need to try harder to maintain the all-important local connections that fuel the life of the local community; we need to acknowledge the symbiotic relationship between community and morality. If our suburbs were to become mere dormitories, with no cohesive communal life of their own, our moral sensitivity would indeed be under threat. If we were only to connect with people we like or who share our interests, that might be comfortable for us, but how healthy is it for the continuing development of the noblest human values, like tolerance, patience, compassion, kindness and respect? The way we respond to people who are unlike us is the best test of our moral integrity.

A fashionable dystopian vision of the future is of a place where the sense of community has been corrupted by greed, vanity and selfishness; where the idea of ‘neighbourhood’ no longer counts; where garbage piles up in unkempt streets; where law enforcement has become an impossibility because the local citizens have lost interest in taking any responsibility for each other’s wellbeing; where gunshots are often heard in the night; where there are bars on every window and locks and bolts on every door; where people come and go by car and never connect; where there’s an air of deep insecurity and mistrustfulness, sometimes amounting to menace; where online communities are the prime source of connection and emotional support.

Some pessimists think we’re halfway there already. It’s true that some parts of the world’s big cities have gone through somewhat dystopian episodes. It’s true that crime sometimes takes over a neighbourhood and the police seem powerless to control it. It’s true that, in many streets of many cities, neighbours don’t know each other and appear to show no interest in doing so. It’s true that the domestic security industry is booming – deadlocks, alarms, CCTV cameras, electronically operated gates, window bars, all the way up (or down) to ‘gated communities’ with boom gates and armed guards.

But who welcomes that kind of development? Who thinks that’s a good way for humans to live? Who doesn’t think that, if some of those developments were to become major trends, we would have a huge social problem on our hands? Who would welcome the idea of our cities becoming a series of ghettos disconnected from (and perhaps impenetrable to) each other? Who wouldn’t rather live in a friendly and safe street than an unfriendly and unsafe one? Who wouldn’t like to live in a street where, if we were going away, we could leave the key to our house with a trustworthy neighbour?

The good news is that there are countless towns and suburbs like Southwood around the world, where the residents do nurture their local community and take some pride in its health. So the challenge is: how do we preserve that way of life, and extend it to neighbourhoods where isolated people are at risk of being paralysed by fear and insecurity?

Part of the answer lies in the quality of urban design and, in particular, the creation of more imaginative and socially attuned living spaces with increasing emphasis on public rather than private space – including well-designed ‘hubs’ (see chapter 5).

Another answer is to focus more on the development of contemporary versions of the well-proven model of medium- density housing that eschews unsustainable house-and-garden developments at one end of the scale and inhospitable high- density housing at the other.

But even in cities, towns and suburbs that don’t enjoy the benefits of enlightened design, there are hopeful signs that we understand the threat posed by fragmenting communities. Many of us are paying more attention to our local neighbourhoods. We are coming out of our shrinking households to find new ways of herding (see chapter 3).The tide may well be turning for communities and that’s good news not only for our social nature, but for our moral nature too.