“It was a joy to read five such accomplished and very different novels.”
2020 Judge, Jenny Savill
Ahead of tonight’s announcement of 2020’s Bath Novel Award we proudly present the opening pages of this year’s shortlisted novels:
We are stories. We are beginnings and middles and ends. We are a thousand different interlinking narratives, starting and stopping and inter-weaving. This is our middle I think. We are together here, Jay and I, entwined in the middle of our story. Happy in a paragraph of perfect.
But life is not a novel. We have no clue where in the story we actually are. We have no idea how many pages are left before the end. We have no idea at all.
Sometimes the middles in life are actually endings.
And sometimes just when we think that everything is over, a story has only just begun.
* * *
The dahlias are in the vegetable drawer of the fridge. They are bright pink, tightly bound in a cone of brown paper and cellophane. The petals shock, violent, against the plastic wrapped sprouts and bags of potatoes.
The food shopping is packed away. There is enough food to last the two of us at least a week. Jay has bought all of the ingredients for the festive meals that he’s planned. He has even remembered to buy more peppercorns. He’s filled the grinder up, spilling a few. The peppercorns lie like crows’ eyes on the granite work top. Everything else is neat, just how he likes it. Neat and normal.
“I’m home.” I call. But the sing-song clatter of my voice dissolves into the silence of the house. I run my fingers along the cool dark granite and wait.
The dahlias are in the fridge. He must have bought them at supermarket that day. A split-second decision or a planned and sweet intention. I don’t know. And then he must have packed them away with the food. With the pale turkey and winter vegetables scrubbed clean of earth. The flowers are a stark slash of colour. Chilled and forgotten.
Misplaced. His mind elsewhere.
I find the cold dahlias in the kitchen.
Then I go upstairs to the bedroom and find Jay.
* * *
’I know how awful it is to find a body.’ the police lady says. Her voice is low. She has been here before, sitting with loss. I sit on the sofa cradling a cup of tea that I don’t remember asking for or taking.
The mug is a favourite, Le Crueset from a set of two with handles curved like half-wedding rings. I don’t like tea I think. The tea slips and slides inside the mug. My hands won’t still, as if my body is being disturbed by an unseen force from far away. The rotation of the earth, the deep shift of continental plates, some tsunami somewhere.
‘Drink your tea. It’s got sugar in.’ She moves her body slightly on the sofa, turns a page in her notebook, hooks her hair behind her ear. ‘It will help with the shock.’
Shock. The word hangs there in my mind, attaching meaning to itself.
I sit still.
Drink down the tea for shock.
I’m sure I’m drifting in and out of consciousness but I must be awake because the police lady keeps on talking at me. She tells me she is a ‘Liaison Officer’ but her name has filtered from my mind. She must have mentioned it. Her hair looks nice I think. I stay on the sofa, staring at the Christmas tree lights, silent as time slurs and blurs.
‘I’m sorry love. We’ve got to ask you some questions.’ She just won’t stop.
We are in Dubai and the hotel pool is piping music underwater through hidden speakers. It is night. The city pollutes the sky with light. Jay and I are sitting at the bottom of the pool, breathing out bubbles of air and holding hands. There are lights that change colour under the water. He swims over and holds his face close to the light. Pink, blue, purple, green. We can tell there is music but it isn’t clear enough to hear.
I am underwater now.
This is the very bottom.
A few words filter through. Inquest. Coroner.
‘We’ll need to take some of his things away with us. I’m sorry. They’ll be returned as soon as possible and we’ll take good care of them.’
A low moan escapes my mouth. It comes from somewhere deep that I did not know existed. They cannot take his stuff. I grip the mug. I grip it as if it is his warm hand or beating heart.
Please don’t take his things.
They take his laptop, his mobile phone, the belongings on his desk. Some migraine tablets and the paper diary that he keeps.
Kept. The diary that he kept
* * *
THE ARROW GARDEN
There is a moment when the arrow stands in the target. And there is a moment, just before that, when it does not. No matter how I stare, I can never catch the instant of its arrival.
If I look towards the archer, I can just see the brief flash of movement as it leaves the bow. But the eye can barely track its flight, often arriving at the target to find the arrow already planted, as if it had grown there.
A camera perhaps, could resolve that uncertainty between the note of the bowstring and the percussion of the target. The image might reveal a flying stick, naked and exposed, quivering with all the chances of its flight. Even a bursting of the paper as it entered the target. But would that satisfy? After all, if it was a fair shot, then it already stands in the target. And no camera can ever capture the moment between there, and not there.
But there must be something in the void, in the moment between moments. For everything else, forwards and backwards, grows out of that.
* * *
The archer takes up position at the shooting line, feet braced well apart, establishing the foundations of the shot.
‘Of course, you’ve never met my Aunt.’
Hiroshi’s English was impeccable. Probably because it was patched together from textbook phrases like ‘Hiroshi’s English was impeccable’ or ‘Of course, you’ve never met my Aunt’. Of course I’d never met his freaking aunt. I hadn’t long since met him, and this was the first time he’d admitted to having any sort of a personal life, never mind an actual living relative.
‘Quite a character. A very nice person…’
…although, as a matter of fact, she had some odd ways.’
He didn’t seem to register my puzzled silence.
‘We felt it might be because of her experiences in the War. She lost all her family, -except for my father.’
I admit, I was struggling. Thirty seconds before, we had been deep in the minutiae of translation, wrestling the maintenance schedule for a medical waste incinerator out of Japanese and into English.
‘She was almost killed herself. A real survivor. She never spoke about it, certainly not to us children.’
In the middle of a paragraph about ‘Schedule of Monthly Inspections’, he’d pushed back his chair, put his glasses down on the desk, and come out with this… stuff.
‘To my sister and I she was just Auntie Mie. She bought us little treats: shaved ice with syrup in the summer, cakes in the winter, presents on our birthdays. In fact, she lived a perfectly normal life most of the time.’
The yellow stained fingertips strayed upward toward his mouth, but finding no cigarette, settled on his tie instead, and unnecessarily re-arranged it.
‘She could be very…determined.’
He paused, as if waiting for something.
‘But very humorous also, more…uninhibited than most people.’
Again, a pause, during which it dawned on me that what he was
waiting for, was me.
‘Sounds fun!’ I said, and immediately regretted it.
‘Yes! My sister and I adored her! But the presents were a little odd.’
His tone became confidential.
‘At first she would just buy us the usual little toys. But as we got older, she started giving us things that were rather…strange.’
Our desks stood side by side, facing the low wall under the slope of the roof, his to the right of mine. I knew he was looking at me. Probably with a raised eyebrow. Waiting for me to say something like: ‘Oh? What sort of strange things?’. In that quiet, poky little attic office, high above the traffic, I swear I could hear both of us breathing. I cleared my throat and pointed out, as tactfully as I could, that we had a minor deadline to meet. He gave a little grunt, and snapped the glasses back on. Twenty seconds later we were once more tussling over the correct usage of ‘air filter retention ring’ and ‘flexible drive-belt tensioner’ and I was congratulating myself on having steered our relationship back onto professional ground.
* * *
When Boon Ho said “he’s here”, Su Lyn knew there was only one person he could be talking about.
“Already?” She looked down in dismay. She’d raked like the others, bent down like the others, scooped up the shells that lay camouflaged in the sand like the others, and stuffed them into the plastic net. But her net was only half full.
“The minivan’s there on the shore,” Boon Ho said.
They were surrounded on all sides by a vast plain of sand. In the distance it looked smooth and brown, like unbaked clay, but under Su Lyn’s boots it was uneven and oozing. It rose into dry ridges, and then cracked into channels filled with shadows and the silky glint of water.
A hazy green line marked the start of the land, where the silver minivan was already waiting. It seemed early to Su Lyn, but her opinion didn’t matter. General Cockle was their alarm clock, their factory whistle, their temple bell.
And all around her, the cocklers were hoisting bulging orange plastic nets onto their shoulders. Last night they had been kind, friendly people sharing nicknames and flasks of tea, but now, anonymous in their waterproofs, they seemed like hardened soldiers.
“Don’t panic,” Boon Ho said. “Maybe he’ll be in a good mood.” She knew from the way he muttered it that he was lying.
The other cocklers were already walking. They formed a small caravan as they dragged their nets back towards shore. The wind worried at Su Lyn’s jacket. It was relentless here – it moaned in her ear like an endless tannoy instruction she couldn’t understand. Its gusts made her twitch, and then she felt the pain of the day’s labour rip through her muscles. She wanted just to collapse on her dirty old mattress and sleep.
But General Cockle was early, and her net was only half full.
“He thinks I’m lazy,” she said. “He hates lazy people. I’ve got even less than yesterday.”
“It’s your first week,” Boon Ho said. “You’re still getting used to it. Mention the hole in your glove. It’s hard to rake when you have a blister.” He cleared his throat. “Better not pull out the dictionary.”
She’d thought she could learn as she worked. Gather words like shells. Then she’d picked up the rake and she was just muscles and nerves in a race against time. She felt the lump in her pocket. “I’d forgotten I even had it.”
The huge sky made her feel very small. It was blue like an upside down sea, with foamy clouds crashing against the distant hills, and scales of sun and shadow twisting this way and that. Birds plunged into it, weeping like mourners. She didn’t recognise any of their cries.
They trudged forward.
“You could take some of mine,” Boon Ho said.
“Then he’ll scream at both of us,” she said.
Ahead of them, the cocklers kept marching. They were tough, but not as tough as General Cockle. He’d arrived in a shipping crate and raked and stamped and haggled his way up. He’d been slapped and sacked and made the butt of other people’s jokes. He never smiled, except when he threatened you.
“I should have said more, my life,” Boon Ho carried on, as if reading her thoughts. “Today I’ll make sure he understands.”
“He won’t listen,” she said. The only people General Cockle had to listen to were the ghosts, the English bosses who rang him up on his fancy mobile phone. And all they seemed to care about was how many nets he’d sold.
Boon Ho squeezed her hand through her glove. “I’ll make him listen,” he said.
Another promise. He made so many he should start a factory.
“From what the others say, this isn’t a bad job,” Boon Ho continued. “In a few years, we could actually make money.”
She hated how cheerful he sounded. “Years?” she said. The end of the week seemed as far away as the horizon.
“I just meant once the debt is paid off.”
“And the housing, and the food bill and everything else they take,” she said. She was suddenly furious. “This is worse than the factory. At least we got paid.”
He winced as if struck by the wind. But it was the truth. She’d listened to his stories for years, caught the bus to the city with them, cashed them in for a ticket to England. Now they were on the windy, neverending cold sand and he was still trying to peddle his fantasies.
“And there was no General Cockle,” she said.
On the shore, a figure got out of the minivan and paced up and down. In the factory, one person showed you to your dorm, another person took you to the canteen, but here there was only General Cockle. He loomed over them like Boon Ho’s drunken father – even when the minivan he organised dropped them off at the house he’d arranged for them to live in, there were the noodles he chose in the cupboard.
He breaks you like an animal, the cocklers had whispered as they served up the noodles the previous night. But it’s easier that way. This is your life now.
It wasn’t. It couldn’t be. She stopped.
“He told me the net had to be full,” she said. “I may as well leave now.”
Boon Ho stared at her. “What do you mean?”
“I’ll walk back. Follow the road. Tomorrow I’ll go to a city.”
There, she’d said it. Made it real.
Boon Ho was shaking his head. “Are you crazy?”
“I was crazy to come here.” To listen to you, she almost added. She looked around at the strange landscape again. It might as well be a different planet.
“But, my life,” he lowered his voice. “It’s not just General Cockle. The snakeheads, the debt collectors. They’ll come looking for you.”
* * *
I’m writing because I’m a fan and because you’ve been through a lot and come out smiling which is something I’d like to do someday too. You’re also one of the greatest rock guitarists ever and, if you ask me, one of only two role models worth having, the other being the Duke of Edinburgh who, as a toff, you might not like much but still, he likes a drink so at least you’ve got that in common. Between him and your own good self, I guess I’m looking for the inspiration I need to turn my life around.
Please don’t think I’m mad enough to imagine you’ll read my letters – you probably have people who syphon off the crazies, the depressed, the obsessed. I’m not any of those things apart from probably, the second one. Jesus, it is nearly winter. You should try living in a caravan in a field in the dark. All the same, if you don’t mind, Keith, I’ll assume you do check the mail for my letters; writing could get dispiriting otherwise.
At this time of the evening – nine forty-five – I expect you’re stretched out on the sofa in your leopard print leggings, feet crossed, velour dressing gown open to reveal your leathery chest. I see a Marlboro Red jutting from between your lips, a pair of reading glasses perched on the tip of your carroty nose and, in between drags, you twiddle your earring which dangles from a very long, droopy earlobe. To me, you’re like an ancient leopard reclining after a kill. Reaching for your tumbler of bourbon, you look slow and languid, but anyone who thinks you’re past it is making a serious mistake: You’re not as fast as you used to be, but you’ve still got what it takes to bring down a wildebeest.
When your back is against the wall, which I guess mine has been for a long while now, the best thing to do is to make a move. It doesn’t really matter what it is, you’d better just make one because, in the end, you just have to keep trying. Also, I’m coming up to forty and I think Jenny who works down the King of Prussia might have smiled at me – like that. God knows why, but women are funny. Keith, this could be my last chance of love, couldn’t it? So something’s got to give. If you don’t mind, I’ll write and let you know what my ‘move’ is going be, and how things are going with Jen – a sort of progress report. I’m currently wracking my brains for ideas but nothing has sprung to mind. I’m thinking of sneaking into Porth Enys Hotel for a shower; when I lived in a house, the bathroom was a great source of inspiration, but then as the riffmeister himself, you probably already know that.
If I had a sofa, I’d be stretched out on it too, but as it happens, I’m slouched on one of the little seats up one end of my caravan, squinting in the light of a candle. Sometimes people say things like: “You’re nearly forty and you’re still living in a field?” And look at me like I’m an idiot. But I know you’ll get it. Don’t you reckon music that lands on the beat is boring? The thudding monotony of it is dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb. We can’t all live to a four-four rhythm; nowadays if you’re even slightly off beat, you just get crushed. In actual fact though, my caravan attracts a lot of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ from anyone who sees it, which isn’t many. It’s a classic with glass windows, but in any case, I bought it in a hurry off a bloke from Penzance and in some ways, mainly because it’s only twelve-foot-long and leaks like a sieve, I’ve regretted it ever since. A four berth Adria like my neighbours Beth and Andy have – that’s my dream.
Still, there are things to be grateful for. Right now, I can hear the wind rushing through the branches of the trees outside while, in here, the wood burner’s drawing like a beauty, the smoke roaring up through the length of lorry exhaust pipe that’s the chimney. I’ve got just the right amount of wood on it too – not too baking hot, but a steady warmth that drives out the damp. I’ve not been drinking tonight – I try to stay off it until Friday. As I say, there’s no lights but I’ve got my candle, and if I want to read a book, well then that’s what head torches are for. It’s not so bad and I’m sleepy and sad in a good way, and we’ll see what tomorrow brings.
Best wishes and thanks for the music,
P.S. By the way, I really like that off-the-beat thing you do in Brown Sugar on the Havana Moon YouTube clip – twang, twang, twang WOO. Awesome.
* * *
I live in that house you’ve seen on the news. In your mind it’s white, but we painted it robin’s egg blue the summer I turned sixteen. Two little pink bikes lean against the veranda, and one wall glows blue with the reflected light of a police car. They use the same picture every time there’s ‘news’. It’s not worth the expense to send a photographer out to get a fresh one. Not when they want the two little bikes and that streak of blue.
Nobody wants to see proof that one of those little girls grew up.
* * *
The sign above the door to the combined general store and post office read ‘PLEASE KEEP CLOSED – AIR CON RUNNING’ in slanted text, but if it was going it was losing against the hazy late summer heat. Mina remembered the blast of cold air when they pushed open the door as kids. Usually when their mother, worn down packing a dozen errands into a single trip into town, agreed to stop at the ice cream chest. Either the air conditioner had grown too old, or electricity prices too high, or Mrs Gilligan had hit that age where skin stretched over bone and the hottest day was too cool for comfort. Mina supposed she could ask, but when you asked people personal questions they got comfortable asking them back.
“You here for your delivery, hon?” Mrs Gilligan asked.
She’d felt awkward the first few times she turned up to collect a package that was clearly a bulk load of dry goods and cans. The General was closer to a convenience store than a supermarket, but it was still the only place in Nganine to buy food. But Mrs Gilligan had never commented, never even glanced sideways.
Mina preferred the people who did comment. At least when a person sniped to her face, she knew exactly where they stood. The ones who seemed nice could stay a question mark forever.
“It’s in the back,” Mrs Gilligan said, pushing herself up off the stool. “I’ve checked the attached invoice, and there are a couple of items missing.”
Mina sighed. That was another two hour round trip she would need to make into town later. It was bad enough the company refused to accept a roadside mailbox as a legitimate address, forcing her to pick the deliveries up in town. More and more of her orders had been arriving incomplete or incorrect.
“The man was very apologetic.” Mrs Gilligan held out the invoice. “I do have these all in stock, at the moment.”
Mina skimmed through the list, hoping it would be the handful of items she added on impulse. Some of the junk food, maybe. The batteries, they could wait another six weeks. But no. The missing items were vital. The canned beans. Two out of the five bags of dried lentils. And the ground cumin. All linchpin items in her meal planning. She’d calculated each out with care.
She drummed her fingers on the counter, doing the maths in her head. The cumin was the key to a lot of recipes, particularly the deep pantry rummages she leaned on in the last days of her grocery cycle. Some days she was nearly out, but couldn’t face the trek into town. Those days had made her an expert in the sort of cooking that would have made her great and great-great grandmothers proud.
The door opened behind her, and a man shuffled in. She studied his warped reflection in the glass door of the cigarette cabinet. He was tall, and broad, wearing a black pullover and cargo pants despite the heat. He had a black knitted cap on, but what she could see of his hair was blonde, with the fuzzy texture that might be curls if he used the right conditioner. His face was unfamiliar—an unusual quality here. Nganine wasn’t a highway town, no travellers passed through searching for hot pies and public toilets. The seasonal workers at the surrounding farms were all in place by this point in the year.
Mrs Gilligan straightened her posture, looking at him with an open curiosity that meant Mina wasn’t out of the loop on any gossip. He was a new face, and that sent anxiety slicing through her gut.