Ahead of the announcement of 2021’s Bath Novel Award we proudly present (in alphabetical title order) the opening pages of the six shortlisted novels.
CALL ME SUZY
He began at the beginning. He began by asking about my pregnancy, the birth.
It was your beginning, and it was also mine.
‘He was early. My waters broke three weeks early,’ I said.
‘Go on,’ he said.
‘There were two midwives,’ I recalled.
Push! One had shouted. No—stop! cried the other.
It was too late. I was already pushing. And I couldn’t stop.
‘Traumatic?’ he suggested, inclining his head.
‘It wasn’t that,’ I said. ‘It was the weight.’
‘That’s the thing, about pregnancy. The weight it expounds in you. It never really leaves you. You feel its loss, but you want it. You want to be rid of it. That’s the weight you carry with you.’
As he asked me questions, I thought back to those days. Days when I was shining. Rosy and ripe. I would lie, beached on the sofa in my bra and knickers, plumping under the insidious heat of late summer, my legs splayed across Mike. And he would run his hand over the fat pearl of my belly as I chatted and hummed, scribbled down hopes, promises, ardent messages of love to you. Mike negotiated the swell of me against the tidal flux of my emotions, playing a guessing game, his fingers tracing the ripple of your bones as they shifted underneath my skin: a spine, a heel—is that a shoulder? And even then, as you grew, heavy as a fruit inside me, you would beat me like a drum, mould me with the jab of a heel or the furl of a fist into an awkward kind of sanctuary, which I kept firm and taut as a pea pod.
We named you on the second September day. The first day—the day the thick slapping waves crashed through my belly and down to my bowels—was a fickle one. We had all the weathers: bright sunshine, brisk wind, clattering hail, lashing rain. As the day grew long, the sky grey, tired of its exertions, my body blistered, a solar flare. It was the longest day of my life and you clung on to it, waited it out. You were born right on the cusp, at 11.59pm. One minute to midnight.
You surfaced on a bloody riptide. It heaved and hammered and pounded at me. I burst. Belched you out: a waxy grub with dark gashes for eyes. They slapped you onto my chest, skin-to-skin, and straight away you tried to burrow your way back down into me. You clung to my midriff, curled up like a leach, still screaming. I reached out a hand to touch the tiny clenched fists, slick black head, warm puckered body. I had expected a cold slimy thing.
You stopped screaming. I started. The pain was intense, as if I’d been ripped apart. I wanted to crawl away into a corner. I wanted to take myself off, like an animal. There was a lot of fuss. They called a doctor. The doctor called the surgeon. I had a sudden premonition that something catastrophic was going to happen.
But it had already happened.
He knew, the instant he opened his eyes, that Ma was gone. Rina Auntie was in the kitchen and he could tell by the way the dishes clattered in the sink. If Ma had been around, she would have been more careful. He could not hear his father mumbling his prayers for the morning puja, nor could he smell the agarbatti sticks that welcomed each morning with their sickly-sweet fumes. Amma, too, was quiet in her room, the way she went quiet when she was perched on the edge of her bed, trying to catch Ma’s voice so she could start calling out to her.
But Adi knew before he could register any of these things. He knew from the shift in the magnetic field of the house, from the way his body seemed tense and restless, sensing that something was wrong, aching like a part of it was gone.
He fished his Casio from under the pillows and clicked a button, and it glowed blue-green, bright as a daydream, making him squint. He thought of the plankton he had seen on Discovery Channel, those ants of the sea that glowed in that same shade of blue. Fluorescent plankton, they were called. Or was it luminous?
Sitting up in bed, he shook his head and forced himself to focus. It was 09:24—way too late for the house to be this quiet, even on a Sunday. He looked around the drawing room trying to find a clue but nothing seemed to be out of place. The coffee table was wiped spotless, its four wooden coasters arranged in a perfect square, and all his books were stacked neatly on the shelf underneath, just as Ma left them every night, often after he had fallen asleep.
Ever since Amma had shown up one evening, months ago, and taken over his room, he had been sleeping on the divan outside. He had grown to like his half-bed in the drawing room from where he could watch TV without the glare of the tube light and sleep right in front of the big cooler. Ma insisted, however, that it was a temporary arrangement. She refused to let Adi think that he had lost his room forever. Every night, she battled the mess he created, hiding away the comics and homework notebooks abandoned mid-sentence, clearing out the forgotten glasses of orange squash left on the table, collecting all the remains of his day to restore the drawing room to its pre-Amma status. She had done it last night too, he could see, so maybe he was mistaken, he wondered. Maybe Ma had, for the first time in his life, slept through the morning?
The monsoon-thirsty sky was on fire. Already, the sun was burning white through the thin curtains, and as the morning fog cleared from his mind, he began to remember things from the night before. He had been hoping to speak to Ma after dinner, but something had ignited between his parents and their bedroom door had slammed shut.
With all his years of practice, he had developed a special skill—a superpower, you could call it—to tune into whispers behind walls. In the drawing room, however, with the roar of the big cooler, it was proving harder to hear them. Turning the cooler off would have made his parents suspicious, so he had decided to give up. Their fights were the same anyway, like action replays of all the ones he had grown up hearing, with his father ranting on about Pakistani spies and ‘national security’, accusing Ma of everything from taking advantage of his ‘good nature’ to plotting to put him in jail. Through it all, Ma never shouted back. At times, when she reached the end of her patience, she calmly reminded him, through clenched teeth, that she could leave any time. His father often laughed at this, but however empty the threat may have been, it usually ended the fight.
With Amma’s arrival, something had cracked open Ma’s quiet, controlled face, and Adi had glimpsed a fury underneath, like a bubbling, popping layer of magma. He had tried to ignore it, hoping that things would calm down on their own, but last night, there had been a new edge to Ma’s voice, a boldness that he had not heard before. It was not a wail, a whine, a call for help. It was a battle cry. This time, when she had screamed her usual threat, it had made him turn to the wall and shut his eyes tight, and he had lain there determined to stay awake, until he had fallen asleep.
A mother falls from a plane.
Not many people die this way, the mother thinks, as she tumbles over and over herself, the world flashing sky–earth–sky–earth–sky. She can’t think of any profound final words; she is just the words ‘no, no, no’. And then she blacks out.
For two and a half minutes, she freefalls towards the planet. Nuggets of twisted metal glance off her body and an airplane seat wrenched from its metal moorings, breaks her arm. Suitcases drop like missiles. Other people, most already dead or dismembered, plummet to the ground.
The mother wakes up at 7,000 feet. There is a piece of plastic stuck in her back like a dorsal fin. She grasps fistfuls of air, as though the sky might provide something for her to hold onto, to steady her as she tumbles. Except for the black smoke trail which spurts from the nose–diving plane, there is nothing for miles above. Below, she sees the curvature of the earth, sees a wriggle of white where land meets sea. Flight KH307 has exploded above Ásbyrgi, northern Iceland, and although she does not know it, does not wish it, she is on a trajectory to crash, almost centrally, onto the landmass shaped like a gigantic horseshoe.
The mother has been falling for almost three minutes. She is oxygen deprived, and has multiple broken bones – but is, crucially, alive. Of the 133 people on board KH307, 132 are dead. But Julia Addington is awake to watch the ground rush up to meet her.
When the mother smashes into the thick blanket of snow, her heart stops. The soul rises from her chest and floats above the scene, sliding between pockets of warm and cool air. It is peaceful. The soul floats higher and sees, in the far distance, ambulances squealing along the ring road, their lights ricocheting off the lava fields. The mother is bleeding into the snow. She is a blood red snow white; a newly birthed heroine. It would be so easy to float away. She almost does.
But forty minutes later, a paramedic in a snowsuit is kneeling by the mother. He rips open her blouse and brings paddles to her chest. The soul strains in the air, but the mother’s body is pulling it to her, like a kite being reeled in.
Life cleaves through the mother. Breathing again, she is strapped to a board and airlifted to Landspitali Hospital.
She hangs onto life for as long as she can. In English, the nurses call her ‘The Second Coming’. She thinks about Rose’s little fist curling around her index finger, and wonders when she’ll come. Things start to morph into her; the vase on the bedside table is Rose sitting criss–cross. The radiator forces trapped air through its pipes, and it is Rose beating her pink bongo drums.
The mother will be famous amongst the religious fanatics; the aviation freaks; the Christian do–gooders. But others did it better: she was only admitted to the elite Freefall Survivors Club – to be among the Vesna Vulovićs and the Juliane Koepckes of the world – for nine short days.
The afternoon the mother dies, her brain floods with blood. In the light above the operating table she sees them for the first time; the fairies, the elves. Their gold–tinted world is superimposed upon hers, and they exist, like floaters, in her periphery; black and gold and formless. She wants to tell the surgeon about these people, and ask whether he too can see them, but her mouth is thick from anesthesia.
When the mother dies, she walks towards a house. Its roof is thatched with grass and heather, the stone walls supported by driftwood beams. It is built into the side of a cliff and when the door opens, the house glitters from within.
MEET ME AT THE SURFACE
Here’s how it starts. A farmer says goodbye to his cows and climbs over the shaky fence that divides his parcel of land from the rest of the moor, his dog lowers her belly to the ground, cat-like, and squeezes below the fence. Then, the farmer calls the dog daft: daft dog.
What he doesn’t know is that women understand the moor differently. In his truck, the farmer sees nothing, at first, just sketched out roads leading through the heath. It is only when the dog barks that he sees: a blonde head, diving through bracken. The face is thin, body wiry, laden with bags. A tramp, he thinks. He watches as the boy (for he’s decided that is what it is) scuttles up the side of the big rock, scarab-like, all arms and legs and joints. The farmer grips the steering wheel. He thinks he can hear the clickclacking of limbs in the distance.
He wishes it were ten years ago, perhaps twenty, when he could pull his air gun from the back of the truck and scare the strangers off the moor. Now the world feels all about sympathy and understanding. He’s supposed to consider the feelings of the youths burning blazes on dry gorse, leaving spent barbecues and rusted cans across his fields. He thinks of his daughter, refusing the visit for the summer, happier in the city.
The dog barks: daft dog. The farmer leans over and opens the passenger door, sends the dog a-running to the boy. Of course, the dog sees what the man can’t. The stranger atop the rock is not a boy, or even really a stranger. See, women know the moor differently, and the moor knows its women well.
My mother used to make up stories about the moors. All the best ones were about the sea, usually. You had the mermaids of Zennor and the Knockers in the coastal mines, Selkies dragging themselves ashore and swapping seal blub for woman fat. Everyone else had a version of Cornwall—beach Cornwall, magic Cornwall—that seemed sunnier, brighter, richer, than ours. We had marshes that drowned sheep and cowshit on the road. Farmers with burst blood vessels and ponies with curled hooves. My friends had surfing lessons and expensive dogs that their mothers took on coastal walks.
Once I thought I saw a polar bear, sunbathing right across the tracks, but the polar bear was actually a white cow, and the cow had a broken leg, so it was winched onto a trailer and died some-sort-of-way soon after. On good days, my mother told me stories, sitting me between her legs as she scraped at my scalp with a nit comb. Stories about the moor being magical too, about secret treasure and hidden spirits. She’d wrench lice from my hair and squeeze them dead between her thumbnails, their little skeletons bursting open—pop!—with a gush of my blood. She didn’t like to sit still, my mother. Her hands needed to be busy, so story time would come as she combed my hair, her drolls punctuated by the pop, pop, pop of my parasite.
The stories weren’t always good. Most of the time they were stops and starts, the beginning of a tale that would turn into a lament about the village, or a boyfriend, or the shopkeeper who always put the change onto the counter, never into Mum’s palm, as if she were grubby. Sometimes the stories were about her and Ysella, my aunt, when they were young, my grandmother playing the part of a bastardised ‘Baba Yaga’, an old crone with chicken legs putting curses on happy children. Other times, the stories were about me, as a baby, a time that I couldn’t remember no matter how tight I squeezed my eyes and wished. You were perfect, perfect, perfect, perfect and wee, she would say, splitting a section of my hair with the comb and scratching near my scalp with her nails when she found gold. Eggsssssss, she would hiss, stretching out the discovery—and then the story would be gone. My hair is scalp-shorn now, bleached like wet sand. More than a decade since she last took a comb to it, now there’s nowhere to hide.
My favourite stories were about the quarries and the rivers. Mermaids aren’t just for salt, she’d tell me, there’s freshwater secrets in each body of water that you see on this land. The bronzy-murk of it might keep it hidden, but right at the bottom of each lake there are eels the length of dragons and oysters with pearls like puffballs. There are fish with legs and frogs with teeth, and all the piskies and spirits that guard them. There are little girls born from the mud and little boys made of stone. It’s a wonderful place to live, Little Sprig.
SOMETHING OF A HOAX
Mama said she would give the cordwainer man a baby- the thing he could not get from his dull-as-ditchwater wife she said- and we would get a roof in return. His roof. As Mama understood it, he would discard the woman and we would live there in that neat stone house and eat from clay plates. But the door was closed.
Why? Mama had his baby in her hands- she took it to him while it still had a purple rope hanging from its belly. While she herself was still walking with her legs apart like a duck. I asked her: ‘why did he shut the door? Where is our roof?’
‘He didn’t order a girl,’ she said.
There was something forlorn about her face. Perhaps she truly loved the man, or maybe she just wanted the roof very badly. I couldn’t be sure since Mama was always driving to the left and the right with her thoughts.
‘I should have known it. You can only rely on yourself, Tibb.’
Now this was some sage advice, then she died, so now there is a baby, no Mama and I can only rely on myself.
A week has passed since then, and I have left that village near Newmarket. Even if Mama had not taught me to move on quickly, I would have done so. Though dull in looks, the cordwainer’s wife had more than just wool between her ears, because she shouted many times that my mother was a whore and drove me from the village before I had barely packed soil over the top of that big hole. At least her husband had the good grace to offer a spade for the job.
I walked away in a puff of smoke since I set alight to that man’s dry thatched roof while he was at the market touting his not-so-sturdy shoes. Now here are some things my Mama did think to teach me: snatching. Making fires. Revenge. He did not keep his promise of the roof, so why should he enjoy one himself?
This new sister of mine is causing me to worry. It has been almost a week with her tiny fingers clinging at me. Her little mewing cry. It is like she has sucked all of my other thoughts away and there is no doubt that I love her. And I do not know much of babies, and yet it is perfectly clear she is not thriving.
‘Henrietta,’ I say. ‘You are growing backwards.’
I am calling her this name after our own King, though Mama said it is this man who has labelled vagabonds like us with the word criminal. But I cannot think of any better name since I do not know many people to fill me with ideas.
Henrietta thinks I am her mother, rooting around for a great pair of tits to suckle on but my chest is flat like a board. I wonder that my whole body was fashioned to resemble a stick. Skinny arms and legs; small all over. Mama would threaten to snap me in half- not in a joking way but with her teeth snarling like a wolf, though she felt bad for those naughty words right after.
Truly, I cannot know when all the growing up will be commencing, though I am thirteen years, so said Mama. How can a person know for certain the very date of their birth unless they keep a tally of every day which passes?
‘What do you need?’ I ask Henrietta but she cries some more. Milk. It is always milk. The goat milk I have been giving is two days on-the-turn and though she licks it from my finger, I believe she is spewing most of it back up on my shoulder.
I shift her so she is cradled in my arms. There is nothing else to carry but a canvas bag slung across my back, a blanket inside it and a small wood tankard. This we pilfered from a tavern years before to use for our collections of water and such. I am searching the fields. Where are cows when you need them?
Needle in. Needle out. Like breathing.
I have done a bad thing. I taste it, iron on the air.
Clumsy with heat, fingers slip against the steel, and sweat trickles at the back of my neck. Beyond the window, birdsong trails to indolent hush. Soon the storm will come. I lift my hair in search of a whisper of breeze, stretching muscles hunched too long in concentration. The bones in my wrists crack.
A touch trembles at my nape, and I shiver. I close my eyes as fingertips trace my collarbone, grazing the softer skin below which is almost, but not quite, the curve of my breast. There is no before, no after. And so, in quivering freeze-frame we wait, you and I: cheek against cheek, our breath mingling in the ellipsis.
Snagged on the cogs of the clock’s unwinding, like a fleck of gold caught in an all-seeing eye, we wait for the rain.
She should have let her phone go to voicemail.
Please come, Katy. I found something strange and did something awful.
Her mother had called on the stroke of decency; freshly woken, Kate was easy meat. The tearful plea, the intriguing hook: damn it, the woman knew her stuff. Kate should be straightening her hair, now. Preparing her notes. Instead, here she was, bus-grimed and clammy with Londoners’ communal perspiration. This had better be good.
The gate had fallen on its hinges since her last visit, and Kate had to lift to ease it over the path. A good daughter would rustle up a man to fix that. Handymen, though, cost money, unless you were smart enough to date one. The squeal of iron against concrete made Kate’s head hurt and tightened the anxious knot in her chest.
“Thanks for coming love.” The door opened before Kate could knock. Her mother’s eyes were red-rimmed, her skin blotchy under a fuzz of powder that was already settling in the lines. Guilt prickled as Kate leaned for a hug.
“You sounded really shaken up, Mum. I had to.” She kicked off her shoes in the hallway, savouring the ceramic cool of the floor tiles. “God, it’s hot. More like August than April.”
“Coffee, please. Strong. I’m still half asleep.”
Kate had hired Kim and Khloé lookalikes for a client’s hair salon launch the night before, and the queues for selfies had snaked along the street. Her evening had been full-on, topping up glasses, taking photographs and handing out goody bags. Smile and talk. Mantra number one of the lone freelance PR. Plaster on that rictus of a grin as you pack away brochures after everyone has gone, fallen nibbles crunching like bones underfoot.
She followed her mother into the kitchen. There was a pile of cardboard boxes on the kitchen counter.
“I’ve been sorting through Nana’s things,” Mum said.
Never look back. Mantra number two. “No wonder you’re upset.”
Her mother shrugged. “There’s no point waiting for a happy ending.” She crossed to the sink. Her thin shoulder blades jutted as she lifted the kettle, and the skin sagged, loose at her elbow. “I found a couple of things you might like. Go and see while I do this.”
Kate bit the inside of her cheek. She did not want to see the space that had been Nana’s, stripped and ready to rehome the dining table moved out a decade before. She should refuse: demand to know what was so strange and awful that it could not be discussed in their usual coffee shop. Instead, outmanoeuvred again—this time by a pleat of ageing skin—she did as she was told.
Her grandmother’s room was both familiar and as starkly other as she had feared. On the mantelpiece, Nana’s thank-you-clock, inscribed with gratitude for thirty years of dedication on her retirement from teaching, still marked time with its brassy 1980s tick. Beside it, the silver-framed wedding photograph stood as it should, the joy in Kate’s grandparents’ smiles unmuted by time despite fading sepia tones. Yet black bin liners were heaped either side of the bed, and the wardrobe was empty but for a single blue dress on a padded hanger and a tiny yellow hat on the shelf above. An image flashed of Kate’s own cupboards, emptied one hot July morning. Of dresses torn from the rail and dumped on the bedroom floor. She let out a long breath. She should walk away: retreat to the safety of her hermetically sealed new life. The musty odour of what might-have-been was overpowering in this house. She turned to leave then swore, turned back, and crossed to the wardrobe.
The yellow hat, little bigger than a fascinator, was intricately finished with feathers and a gauzy veil. The dress, by contrast, was striking in its simplicity: long, narrow and fluid, with a low back. Kate ran her fingertips over the sapphire silk. It felt cool as water, and heavy, as if laden with the dust of life lived.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Mum said from the doorway behind. “From her Singapore days, judging by the label, though that makes it from the forties.” She caught Kate’s eye. “Do not, under any circumstances, touch the bin bags, okay? I swear there’s nothing in them but shapeless cardigans and old lady clothes with elasticated waists.”
Kate swallowed. “Is the dress the strange thing you found?”
Her mother shook her head. “Come back through. I’ll show you.”