This year’s final five novels all explore themes of deception – by those in power, those we love and of ourselves – and how to find life, love and light in even the darkest of days. Here are their opening pages:
Lost Journals of Sundown
One of Us
The Light Factory
The Lost Sister
She is watching me, my sister. Her eyes are dark, her hair is long and she stands opposite me, on the far side of the grave. The black earth stains my fingers. I fold them in as if to hide the weight of the clump of soil sitting in my hand, damp and clammy against my skin.
My sister has come, despite all expectation.
She holds her head upright and her gaze is unwavering. The flaps of her coat are caught by the wind, revealing a flash of red, her dress, her perfect legs sliding down into perfect shoes, heels sinking into the thick grass. Trust her to wear red, even now. I press my lips together and lower my head.
My stepmother’s funeral is a quiet affair. The small churchyard sits on the brow of the hill, gravestones like broken teeth, the surrounding hills cloaked in a fine drizzle that seeps through the thin cloth of my coat. There are a few neighbours from the village, the woman who came to do the cleaning, some bearded bloke on his own. And an older woman dressed in black silk. I feel as though I should know her. Her husband stands behind with an umbrella, slick with rain and she turns around and ignores me.
And there’s my sister, Steph, in her red dress. She has bowed her head too and I can no longer see her face. As the wind blows my hair over my eyes, tangling against the wet on my cheek, I know I don’t even want to see her face.
I close my eyes, concentrating on the words, flinching as that first clump of earth hits the coffin below. I open my eyes again, drawn to the vicar’s hands. Unlike mine, they’re clean despite the soil. One hand holds a prayer book, the other still outstretched, his skin smooth and brown. They are soft hands and he speaks with a clear, cultured voice. I wonder then what his meagre congregation make of him. This is old school rural Derbyshire, after all. I want to smile at him, but he’s too engrossed in the words. As I should be.
“Let us commend Elizabeth Crowther to the mercy of God, our maker and …”
Crowther. My stepmother had taken my father’s name, my mother’s name, along with everything else.
“… we now commit her body to the ground: earth to earth…”
Another clod of black sodden earth bounces off the coffin. I reach forward and open my hand.
“…in sure and certain hope…”
What hope? There is no hope at a time like this. But then I am not a believer.
“…To him be glory for ever.”
More earth tumbles down into the grave. The vicar lowers his head again. We all do, my sister too as the vicar intones a prayer. It’s cold, the air spiced with rotting leaves and autumn smoke. A single bee struggles against the wind to land on the cellophaned flowers at our feet. It looks out of place, so late in the year. I watch it hover. Pollen is clustered under its belly, tiny feet dangling beneath, oblivious to the drama playing out above.
I sneak a look at my sister. She makes me think of one of those designer handbags sitting alone behind the glass of a shop window, the kind lit up by glittering lights, with a price tag to match. Untouchable. My eyes narrow. I feel a kindling of old fear. She lifts her head and our eyes meet. A familiar expression flickers across her lips and I draw a staggered breath.
Would she come to the wake? Would I have to say hello to her? To talk to her? After all this time?
Lost Journals of Sundown
(literary psychological thriller)
The man in the gray suit sits high up in the green leaves and twisting limbs of an ancient elm. When the people walking through Prospect Park look up, they sometimes see him, and when they see him, they stop. Because of the suit, and because he’s a man in a tree.
The suit is wool, with subtle vertical white stripes running through the jacket and pants. A material too warm even for September, and now it’s eighty-five degrees in the shade.
The man’s blonde hair stands up in clumps as if someone sawed it off with a steak knife. His beard is the color and texture of cut wheat. His eyes are green but dark beneath the shadows, and his pale face burns red where the sun breaks through the canopy.
People below estimate his age around fifty if they linger long enough for a guess.
Twenty feet above the ground the man sits with his back straight, swinging his legs like two logs strapped to his knees. He examines the park with clinical interest, slowly scanning the faces, ignoring most who stare back. Like the rotating beams of a lighthouse, his eyes continue on, searching, pausing only when he finds what he’s looking for.
A few yards away, near the statue of Washington Irving, he spots a dark-skinned woman, mid-twenties, with curly black hair to her shoulders. She’s short and plump but not at all fat, her lips full both top and bottom, her eyes big and brown and searching her surroundings.
The woman eases herself onto a bench like she’s settling into a hot tub. Her faded red blouse sticks tight to her arms, chest, and waist, while a snug black skirt rides up over her knees.
He watches her pink bloated feet slip from a pair of sandals. She looks around and carefully withdraws a mirror from her gray leather purse, concealing the lens with her hands as if it contains a secret message. The mirror is rectangular, the size of a pack of cigarettes. She holds it at different angles above her head, mumbling to herself while she looks for something in the glass. And as she stares at herself, the man in the tree stares at her. He takes notes with a black fountain pen and a blue and white journal.
No one ever sees the man in the elm arrive before sunrise, and no one catches his departure at night. Most don’t care if they do or don’t, but a few try. A few set aside other priorities to make sure they see the man come or go. But because of distraction or timing or fate, no one ever does.
Some have studied the elm. They’ve found no footholds, no notches, no low-hanging limbs to grab, no marks in the tree left by climbing shoes.
All day the man sits in the tree, never leaving for food or a bathroom break. No matter what he sees, his face stays the same—flat but expectant, as if he’s waiting for his emotions to arrive with the next breeze. Except every day close to noon, he drops the mask.
With the sun high in the sky, the man’s dark eyes narrow and glisten, and after a few minutes he begins to cry. Only the regulars notice the subtle shift in his mood, the tears silently cutting a clean path through the filthy red. Sometimes the teardrops splash against the shoulders or necks of pedestrians passing underneath.
Every day he cries a bit longer.
One of Us
Twelve months more of medical school, back in my country, and I would have been a doctor. Here, I scrape grease from a stained griddle under buzzing lights, while drunks stagger and shout on the other side of the counter. When they vomit on the tiled floor, I have to clear it up, with a metal bucket and a mop that is falling apart. Maybe this is not so different to a hospital on a Saturday night. Thinking this helps, sometimes.
Before the burger bar I worked in a cheap hotel, stripping stained sheets and emptying ashtrays for three pounds an hour until the assistant manager came and closed the door behind him, and smiled while he undid his belt. If the old couple had not returned to argue about who had left their theatre tickets behind, I do not know what would have happened. Or rather, I do.
Before the hotel I scrubbed left-overs that were worth more than I was from dishes in a restaurant, and before that I shivered on the streets for four nights that lasted a year. Before that was a boat, and before that, days in the back of a lorry. Even now, if I smell lemons I also smell diesel and fear. Before that was another lorry, and before that another city, and before that was the day that the policemen beat my brother to death, and dragged my father away to die in a prison cell, and I heard it all from the cupboard under the stairs, shivering behind an ironing board with my fist stuck in my mouth to stop my screams from coming out.
So I scoured grills, and burnt my hands, and I wiped half-chewed chips from plastic tables. No-one asked me for any papers, the work paid me money in my hand, and the money paid for a bed in a room in a hostel. I shared the room with three other women, and a small bathroom and kitchen with everyone who lived on the same floor, but there was a bed for me, and there was a lock on the door, and after the four nights on the streets that was enough.
Alice came from Kenya. She worked very early in the morning, cleaning in a hotel. She had a picture of a beautiful child stuck to the wall next to her bed. At night she touched it with her fingers as if she was touching the child’s face, and she cried without making any noise. Safeta was Kosovan, and she worked in a laundry, washing and drying a thousand sheets that a hundred Alices stripped from beds every morning. She smelt of the laundry, a clean and nice smell, but her hands were always red and she bled from around her fingernails. Sally was English but she was also a drunk. I do not know what she did in the daytime but at night she just slumped on a couch in the common room of the hostel, drinking cheap wine and staring through the television into a world beyond. Sometimes she had bruises and what looked like bite marks all over her arms.
If I lived there for too long I would go mad, and end up sitting with Sally by the television, pulling at my hair or picking at scabs on my arms. But without the proper legal documentation I could not get a better job, and without a better job I could not make more money, and without more money I could not live anywhere other than the hostel.
I could not go back; it was not safe for me. Even if things changed I could not go back. Would not go back. I could not live with so many ghosts. So I am here.
I save as much as I can from the endless nights in the burger bar to buy some papers that will say that I am legal. I do not want to do this, because I want to be a good citizen, and because the men who deal in the false papers remind me of the men at home: they do everything with a swagger that says that anything that gets in their way will be beaten out of it. I do not want to deal with them.
But I do not want to go back.
The Light Factory
The last day on Earth happened quietly.
A line of cars stretched from the outskirts of Birmingham all the way to the low hills in the south.
A man and woman were leading a young boy up Beacon Hill. He was looking at his feet, kicking his way through the neglected grass as they patiently pulled him behind. At the top, the woman produced three pairs of cardboard glasses, handing one to the man and placing another on the boy’s face, missing an ear. The boy repositioned the oversized glasses and flopped to the ground.
Around them, more people in glasses stood in groups. The man and woman waved in greeting to another family close by. A border collie slipped in and out of legs, searching for attention.
Everyone was looking up at the sky. Occasionally someone made a comment, but mostly they waited in silence.
Then somebody pointed upwards: it was starting. A small piece of the sun was missing, obscured by the edge of the moon.
They watched as the sun seemed to fold into a half-circle, then a crescent, then a sliver of corona.
The light around them dimmed. The birds in nearby trees grew quieter, and then the singing stopped. Finally, the corona disappeared as well, and the grey light was extinguished like a hatch had been closed. The enormous moon ground to a halt, blending into the black sky. In the darkness, people took off their glasses. The whole thing was over in about half an hour.
Some people continued to watch the area of the sky where the sun had been, as if expecting something more. Some began to walk back down the hill.
‘Ok,’ said the man, turning to go, ‘let’s head back.’
The woman scooped the boy up into an embrace. ‘Don’t worry,’ she told him. ‘Everything’s going to be ok.’
‘I’m not scared,’ said the boy.
His body is an oak. Roots have grown from his back into the bed, tethering him. Guided by gravity, they penetrate the mattress and curl around the springs, reaching for the floor. Then they squeeze through a crack in the floorboards, groping their way to the foundations of the house, forcing themselves into the heart of the concrete.
The room lights up, pulling Felix from his dreams. The clangour of a childish melody, repeating then repeating. He feels for the alarm to turn it off, and lies still with his eyes closed, letting the light evaporate any remaining pools of sleep. He lies like this for minutes, warm and numb. The nerves in his limbs have stopped firing.
He’s supposed to see Laura later. He plays out the next twelve hours in his head, considering the effort they will ask of him. It would be easier to just stay like this, not move. Switch off the lights, slip back into the dark. He tries to formulate an excuse to cancel the day. Nothing. He tells himself to get up. He needs to get up. One. Two. Three.
His feet touch the floor. He rubs his hands on his face and through his hair, like he’s seasoning meat.
Turning on every light, he lumbers down the stairs, beginning to register sensation: the roughness of the nylon carpet beneath his feet, the coolness of the wall under his hand.
From the kitchen cupboard, he takes several small tubs and assembles them in a line on the counter. He tips two pills from each tub and makes another line in front. Supplements to stay one step ahead of his body – to trick it into not shutting down. One gets stuck. He holds onto the counter as he follows its slow, sharp progress down his throat. Then he stacks the tubs back in the cupboard, takes his glass through to the lounge and switches on the lamp. It swells into life, filling the room with a low hum.
Like an enormous bell jar, the lamp stretches from floor to ceiling, furniture positioned around it. Felix sits down and sets the timer to twenty minutes.
For a moment, he stares into the middle of the lamp, inviting the light into his skull. Then, when the brightness becomes too much, he closes his eyes and concentrates on the warmth spreading over his face, his chest, his thighs.
One summer, when he was little, his parents had taken him on holiday to Montenegro. It’s the only vivid memory he has of what life was like Before. He remembers chasing waves in the shallows, building pebble towers on the shingle; the feeling of lying on hot stones, his body drying under the sun – how quickly its rays could replenish his energy; his mum’s hand on his chest, sharp as she rubbed in bits of grit with the cream.
He stays in this memory until the timer chimes that the session has finished and the lamp clicks off. He listens to the decaying fizz of its internal components as they cool down. A chill returns to his chest.
The Lost Sister
The week before Mary disappeared there was something she wanted to say – I could see it in her mouth; like she had secret chocolate in there, under her tongue, and if she let it out it would leak in strings of brown dribble all over her chin.
Sometimes we had Smarties after worship on special Sundays, in a bowl on the table beside the tea cups. We could have as many as our age if we’d been good. I let each one lie in my mouth while the hard shell dissolved, until I could crack it with my tongue. I’d eat them one by one until they were all gone, and just the sticky sweetness left to lick off my hands.
Mary kept hers in her pocket. Days later I’d see her sucking at something, she’d smile at me and I’d know – the chocolate taste would come into my mouth, and I wouldn’t say anything.
And that’s how she was that week, but it wasn’t chocolate she was keeping hidden. I didn’t realise it until later, but that was the first sign.
The second sign was the telephone ringing downstairs.
I was busy with my maths homework and I wasn’t meant to touch the telephone, so I let it ring.
Ma said it was like an open wound that telephone – a piece of the Sinner’s world there in our house – but we had to have it, for the times when Pa was away preaching; so it was kept in the under-stairs cupboard, where it couldn’t be seen; but it could be heard. It rang on and on.
There was no one else at home. Pa was at work and Ma was scouring the church for Lent, and Mary would be lost in her music, at her violin lesson. It felt as if someone knew I was here on my own, and they were calling me, Esther, Esther come quick, and then finally, when I was about to give in, the ringing stopped. I went back to my maths.
Five minutes later it began again, and seemed more urgent, louder, but maybe that was because I came out of my room, and the noise was bouncing off the floor and walls; all the way down the stairs I knew it would be nothing good, but I had to know who wanted to speak to me so badly.
I picked up the plastic receiver and a Sinner’s voice spoke in my ear.
At the church the Sisters were busy scraping and scrubbing. They thought I’d got finished early and had come to help, and were at me with a spare apron and a brush, but I kept asking each of them, ‘Where’s Ma?’ until Aunt Abigail saw the hurry I was in, and came across to me.
Ma was in the Elder’s room polishing the table, and by then I couldn’t keep it in any longer, I just spilt it all out without a thought for her nerves.
‘Mary’s missing,’ I said. ‘She didn’t get to her lesson, and the Sinner lady from the school office said one of the prefects ran all down the road to the music school – but they couldn’t see any sign of her.’
Ma knew, and I knew, that something wasn’t right. Mary was always exactly where she ought to be, doing what she should.
Aunt Abigail, behind me, said, ‘She’ll be on a bus home. Don’t fret Esther – she’s been held up by a blocked-off street. Or by the Blessing she’s with one of the Sisters, stopped by on her way home.’
Ma looked at me, asking what I thought. ‘Rebecca Groves was ill today,’ I said, ‘she didn’t come to school.’
‘There you are,’ said Aunt Abigail, ‘That’s where she is, with our Rebecca.’