Tonight at an award ceremony here in Bath, Felicity Blunt of Curtis Brown will announce the winner of the Bath Novel Award 2018. From 1,201 submissions worldwide we proudly present the opening pages of the final five in contention for this year’s £2,500 prize:
|THE GIRL WITH THE LOUDING VOICE|
Umbrellas popped and span around her as the sky began to spit.
Ne looked up at the shrunken building, bullied in by its neighbours on the Strand. It squirmed through its six floors, a victim of architectural scoliosis. She gauged it with a frown, as if it were a potential suitor turned up in yesterday’s clothes.
Books and covers and all that, she thought.
She was short and quick with wide hazel eyes. An imperfect mole sat by a nose that veered towards uncommon large. Today she had chosen to gleam: hairclips, earrings, coat. Even her trainers were a blinding gold. These tinkling touches and rapid gestures gave her an elfin appeal – though more than once she had been referred to as gnomish.
She didn’t care. Not today, not ever again. Here was a new chapter.
With a yelp she realised she was using the integral part of this new chapter – a manuscript sheathed in an envelope – as a makeshift umbrella.
‘Ne!’ She swiped it under an armpit. ‘You wally.’
She found the buzzer and jabbed at it once. The door chirruped and clicked – no receptionist’s voice – and she found her way up to the sixth floor.
There was no lift. Her little legs were strong and deft, but she was breathless with nerves by the time she came to the square black door at the top of the stairs.
INVISIBLE INK LITERARY AGENCY
The last few letters of each word faded away. Below this was an engraved sigil – an X made by one I crossing another.
‘Marks the spot,’ she murmured, fanning her cheeks with the envelope.
She raised her hand, hesitated a moment, and knocked.
They’d be back before curfew, Asha was sure of it. She got out of the car and looked out across the water, where the Nile flowed into Lake Victoria. In the late afternoon light, the mosquitoes glowed gold, like embers from a fire.
‘Be quick, won’t you?’ Jaya called out from the car window, pulling her sari chundri tighter over her silver hair. ‘And careful.’
‘Hush Jaya, she’s not a child,’ said Motichand. ‘Besides, we can see her from here.’ The car swayed like a rowing boat as he hoisted himself into the back seat and lay down for a nap.
Asha took off her chumpal, the blades of grass tickling her toes, the dragonflies dancing at her feet. She shook her hair free from her ponytail, aware that Jaya was probably looking on (‘Loose hair for loose women’).
Jaya had wanted to go straight home, anxious about getting back home to Kampala before curfew started. But Asha had managed to persuade her and Motichand to stop off on the way, what harm would it do to stop and get a little fresh air? There used to be more people around in the old days, of course, the sweet, smoky scent of roasting mogo carrying across the breeze; tinny transistor radios buzzing in the distance, now all Asha could see were a few fishing boats out across the way and the crotchety marabou storks with their black feather cloaks, gathered in the shallows.
She walked out towards the vast water, stretching so far that it looked more like an ocean. As she moved further along, she spotted a twisted shape, jutting out at the water’s edge. A strange mass that seemed to grow from the banks, blackened in parts, ashen in others, protruding from the soil. But this wasn’t the rotting roots of a plant. It was sinewy muscle, twisting tendon. Upstream there were more.
Stingray pulls on his whaler’s T-shirt, pushes his hair back into its elastic band and throws open the doors of the Salvamento Maritimo. Next door, Bradie’s easing back the wooden shutters of her beach lock-up, bending over so he can see the outline of her bikini bottoms beneath her thin wrap-around skirt.
Every afternoon when he is on duty, he watches her swim with the nudists off Playa de la Tejita but this glimpse of covered flesh still leaves him breathless. He had hopes of Bradie once, until he found her crouching in between the Alpaca sweaters and dream-catchers in her store, writing French poetry to another woman. Le coeur qui crie l’amour, pour cette femme tout les jours… He saw her in John Hurley’s bar not long after that, arm in arm with someone called May; a sinewy giant of a woman with spiky purple hair and – he soon found out – a penchant for arm wrestling. Stingray rubs his left wrist now, joints stiff with the memory of their last encounter.
He fires up the coastguard’s buggy and hooks the raking tools over the back using his old snow chains. He’ll need them to keep a grip out on the causeway; he’s going straight over to Crab Island, while the tide allows, but he’s already running late. He’s just about got time to get there and back before his stint on the servicio playa.
Saturdays, he mans the Coastguard stand out front of the produce market, on a rota, handing out advice on the chop and haul of the waters: if you don’t see any sailboards out, you gotta ask yourself why, he says, gesturing to his pile of leaflets on cross-current safety and beginner’s longboard lessons. His tone is severe, his body languorous, but he knows where you can hire the cheapest rigs, ride the best swell.
Standing on his doorstep I feel a surge of something dark and powerful. It is so strong it makes my head swim. Maybe it is because I swallowed the sky on the way over to his house. It filled me up from the inside, and now I am full of stars.
I take a deep breath to steady myself, to remember who I am. Why I am there. I am Tisiphone. Goddess of destruction, guardian of virtue, harbinger of rage. Look upon me. With my hair coiled silver around my head, tendrils springing from it like snakes. Feel my wrath.
A light is on in the hallway. It shines out, pink and royal blue, from the small stained glass window above the door. Two brass numbers at eye-level, 60, smudged with fingerprints. I press the button set into red brick and the bell rings sharp and clear as a fisherman’s warning.
He opens the door and sags in front of me, weak and pathetic. His tears form salt lakes at his feet. His mouth is a stone. I watch it crumble.
“It’s you. Rebecca, please – ”
“Don’t call me that.”
“What do you want?
“I’m younger than Camille, you know.” I slash and slice. Make him bleed. “I’m not seventeen until August. Does that do it for you?”
“God, no, don’t say that!”
“Shall I tell the police what you want to do to girls like us?” I take a step towards him. “Shall I tell them I tried to stop you, that I cried and begged and wailed, but you did it anyway, over and over and over?”
A fault line opens at the top of his head. Fissures carve their way down his face. He splits in two.
“Just – stop,” he says. “Leave me alone. Please. I’ll do anything.”
The Girl with the Louding Voice
This morning, Papa call me inside the parlour.
He was sitting inside the sofa with no cushion and looking me. Papa have this way of looking me one kind. As if he wants to be flogging me for no reason, as if I am carrying shit inside my cheeks and when I open mouth to talk, the whole place be smelling of it.
“Sah?” I say, kneeling down and putting my hand in my back. “You call me?”
“Come close,” Papa say.
I know he want to tell me something bad. I can see it inside his eyes; his eyesballs have the dull of a brown stone that been sitting inside hot sun for too long. He have the same eyes when he was telling me, three years ago, that I must stop my educations. That time, I was oldest of all in my class and all the childrens was always calling me “Aunty.”
Jimoh, one foolish boy in the class was laughing me one day as I was walking to sit on my table. “Aunty Adunni,” Jimoh was saying, “Why are you still in primary school when all your mates are in secondary school?” I know Jimoh was wanting me to cry and be feeling bad, but I look the devil-child inside his eyes and he look me back. I look his upside- down triangle shape head, and he look me back. Then I sticked my out my tongue and pull my two ears and say, “Why are you not inside bicycle shop when your head is like bicycle seat?”
The class, that day, it was shaking with all the laughters from the childrens, and I was feeling very clever with myself until Teacher Shola slap her ruler on the table three times and say: “Quiet!”
It was when I was getting more better in my Plus, Minus and English that Papa say I must to stop because he didn’t have moneys for school fees.
I tell you true, the day I stop school, and the day my Mama was dead is worst day of my life.
The name of the winner of the Bath Novel Award 2018 will be announced on Twitter @bathnovelaward after 8pm on Thursday 13th September, with full details posted on our website from 10am on Friday 14th September.