Ahead of today’s announcement of the winner of 2020’s Bath Children’s Novel Award we proudly present (in alphabetical title order) the opening pages of the four shortlisted novels.
I was named for the North Star — the polar star — steadfast and bright. The dependable constant in a sky that’s always moving. I read once that there is sometimes a strange coincidence between a person’s name and their peculiarities. My father, William, who named me, says this is nonsense — pseudo-science. I’m not so sure.
I’ve spent the whole of my life in the Glassworks. The name sounds more exciting than the reality, which is just a housing block in the Workers’ District. And when I say my whole life, I mean all of it — every last second. I’ve never been anywhere else. I’ve been up on the roof and into other people’s flats — though William doesn’t know that and nor do the people — but they don’t count. I’ve never set one foot outside, on the actual ground. I’m a secret. I used to think that sounded romantic, exciting even. But now it makes me feel like something shameful — to be hidden away like some lady in the attic. If no one knows you exist, it’s easy to stop believing in yourself. And if people are the sum of their experiences, then what does that make me, with none? No more than a half-formed thing like a ghost, or a wisp of smoke in the shape of a girl. Some days, I wonder if I’m real or if William just made me up. If you drew a picture of me, it would be with a running-out pen.
I don’t remember my mother. She died when I was young. And William doesn’t like to talk about those days. So now it’s just the two of us. Mostly, it’s just me. I was happy here when I was younger. I didn’t see the walls, then, as boundaries. In those days, they kept me safe — and they kept the monsters out. A girl called Anna used to look after me. I don’t remember much about her either — I can’t even picture her face, but I can still hear her voice saying, “You have a lot to say for someone so small.” I did then; lots of hows and whys, lots of questions. Anna was patient, though, and kind. I remember that I liked her. Then one day, she wasn’t there anymore. William said, “You’re old enough to look after yourself now. You know how to keep quiet.” I did. I still do. But the words dry up when there’s no one to hear them.
The coffin was Charlie’s best idea of the entire heat wave.
Saturday. 3:01pm. And as hot as a McDonald’s Apple Pie filling.
Four hours earlier, we had successfully sold our mother on eBay. Free delivery to anywhere in the world.
“What on earth is that, Twins?” Mum snapped as she decapitated another dying rosebud in the front garden.
“Are you blind, Mother?” I sighed sweating from pores I didn’t know existed on my cheekbones. “That thing is called a coffin,” I said stating the complete obvious.
The coffin had one previous owner. There were no stains, rips or smells we noticed along the hand stitched satin lining. Charlie had spotted it propped up outside the town mortuary with a sign saying Free to the Dead Only.
“Do we obey signs?” smirked my one and only brother.
We were ten-years-old. We didn’t obey anything.
“It would be perfect to ship Mum off in!” he added gleefully.
“Then grab it before someone else does!” I hissed as Charlie checked the mahogany for any woodworm. “Just pop it inside your rucksack!”
“It won’t fit inside my rucksack!” Charlie growled. “We’ll have to carry it home!”
The coffin was well heavy. Charlie said that was because it was lead lined. But it still wasn’t as heavy as the suitcase we’d once found in a skip full of fake gold bullion. That nearly broke both our backbones.
“Twins?” Mum screamed again as we dragged the coffin along her newly mowed lawn. “What on earth is going on?’
THE ENEMY INSIDE
Paddington Station spat out trains like bullets, that bleak winter of 1940. Day after day they shot through the suburbs, packed with anxious soldiers and vital supplies. But the train at Platform Eight on this particular December afternoon was nothing special. An ordinary train, with ordinary people. Civilians, mostly. Ordinary, Anna Demarco thought to herself, as she huddled in a soot-smeared carriage. Be ordinary. Your life depends on it.
The train shuddered violently as it pulled out of the station. As if it couldn’t wait to escape the rubble and chaos of London held hostage by the Blitz. Anna leaned her head against the window, desperate for the judder of the glass to drown her thoughts. On the seat opposite, an exhausted woman struggled to keep a child on her lap. The girl, skin dark, eyes deep as the ocean, scowled. Anna looked away. Don’t draw attention. Think nothing. Ordinaria.
For the first few miles it worked. Her mind slowed. She even felt a shiver of excitement. But, just past Ealing, a fat drop of rain smacked against the window. It trickled down through Anna’s reflection, splitting her in half. Then came a stab of lightning and her face disappeared in a swirl of rain. All at once a sob roared up her throat. Stupid English weather. Just like that, her old life had been washed away. She wasn’t a Demarco anymore.
‘Smashing!’ said the woman opposite.
Anna looked up.
‘We need it.’ The woman nodded towards the rain outside. ‘That’ll keep the kale growing tasty past Christmas. Dig for victory, eh?’
Anna tried to smile. But everything in her was pulled taut. Talking felt dangerous.
THE WORLD WITHIN
Delilah’s left eye squeezes shut, right eye widening. Through the apartment door’s spyhole, Grant’s nose is a beak. Delilah can almost hear the hiss of his cigarette-laced breath. His eye looms an inch from hers. She scoots back, fluffy socks slipping over the laminate floor.
Grant hammers on the door again. ‘Open up,’ he says. ‘I know you’re in there.’
A murmur from another voice; Joe, must be with him. Delilah hasn’t seen Joe since she walked out of Biology three months ago. She lifts her gaze to the ceiling, follows the trail of hair-thin cracks that criss-cross like shadowy cobwebs. Has school finished for the day? Or is it the weekend?
‘Mum’s not here,’ Delilah shouts, shoulders hunched like an old woman’s rather than a sixteen-year-old girl’s. ‘She’ll see you later.’
‘No can do. Payments are already behind.’ Another murmur. ‘Alright, Joe. I know what I’m doing. – Just open the door, Lila, and we can talk about it. You know, face to face.’
What’s she supposed to do now? She glares at the laptop, open on the clutter of junk mail by the sofa. The website Poker Demons flashes on the screen in tasteful gold and green like the home page of a respectable high-class hotel. How much has Mum borrowed this time? How much has she lost?
Beneath her feet, a soft vibration from the apartment below tickles her toes. Albert must be at Sinjin’s; he likes the ceiling fan on even when it’s freezing cold. Delilah zips up her grey hoodie to hide the canned soup stain from yesterday’s lunch. She breathes in and out slowly. She reaches for the door chain and slides it open. It jangles like a handful of coins.
Grant fills the doorway with his limbs, legs spread, one hand pressed against the doorjamb, the rest of his wiry body glued to the opposite side like a spider poised. His sharp eyes flash to Delilah’s pyjama trousers.
‘Still not in school? Aren’t you going to mess up your exams at this rate?’
‘I’ve been given permission.’ Delilah squeezes out each word. ‘I’m allowed to revise at home.’