We proudly present extracts from the five novels shortlisted for The Bath Novel Award 2019:
ALICE & IRIS
THE LAST FIELD
ALICE & IRIS
‘Right,’ Da said. ‘Let’s see what you’ve got, then.’ He slipped the first slide, face up, into the fluid, then tipped the tray gently from side to side until the slide was coated, and the developing process could begin.
Da and I leaned forward to watch, our faces almost touching in the half-light.
It was the first picture, the one I’d taken. There was the waterfall coming through but blurred, too quick for the shutter to catch. I bit my lip. If the whole thing were out of focus … but then there was Fanny emerging, taking shape in the solution, her face forming piece by piece, wobbly in the liquid. Eyes gazing out at us, chin on her hands, even the pansies in her hair visible. And, in front of her, appearing one by one, a whole row of fairies. Yes, they looked as if they were skipping and dancing through the grass, not being held up by it. And with Fanny behind them, entranced, it was a good picture, I thought.
Da’s finger hovered over the fairies. ‘Nice picture that, but it would have been better without them sandwich papers there,’ he said. ‘You could have cleared them up first.’
Sandwich papers? The fairies looked like sandwich papers to him?
‘No Da,’ I said as boldly as I could. ‘That’s them. That’s the fairies.’
He pulled his head into his neck, forehead creasing. ‘Never,’ he said, adjusting his glasses. ‘Are you sure?’
‘Positive,’ I said, firmly. ‘Look, you can see the bells on their wings.’
Outside, Fanny must have heard us speaking because she called through the door. ‘Are they there?’ she said. ‘Can you see them?’
‘Yes!’ I called back, Da recoiling as my voice filled the room. ‘The fairies are coming up on the plates!’
‘Mummy!’ Fanny shrieked. ‘Elsie says they’re there!’
‘Hmm,’ Da said, removing the plate from the tray with forceps. He held it in the air to let it drip a little and then laid it in a dry tray. I could barely keep my eyes from it. With every second that passed, the picture looked better and better. Fanny and the fairies. And they did, they looked like fairies. My first photograph.
Da slid the second slide into the collodion tray and repeated the tipping motion.
Again, both of us leaned in as the slide transformed itself, the image emerging, wobbly in the solution. My white dress glowing in the centre rippling into sleeves and cuffs, and then a hand, my hand, and the goblin at the tips of my fingers, every inch of him, clear and distinct, and no sign of the hatpin.
I opened my mouth to speak but Da interrupted.
‘I can see it,’ he said, letting it drip before laying it beside the first one.
‘I can’t wait to tell Fanny,’ I said, turning to go, but Da put his hand on the door handle.
‘How did you do it, Elsie?’ he said. ‘Pictures? Paper cut outs? That’s my guess. Come on, lass. I wasn’t born yesterday and I know when you’re lying. Time for the truth, love.’
‘Are they ready? Can we see them yet?’ Ma’s voice unsteady from the hallway. ‘Come on, I’ve been waiting years for this.’
‘She trusts you, your ma,’ he said. ‘Don’t let her down.’
Ma who believes, who wants to believe in us and them and Nana. I wasn’t letting her down. We had photographs of fairies.
‘Elsie, let us see them!’ Small hands hammering on the door.
Fanny, beautiful Fanny, who I cannot lose, who loves the fairies and me. Her face as they danced before her.
‘They’re real, Da,’ I said. ‘The fairies are real.’
The naming happened on the second September day. The first day — the day the thick slapping waves began to crash 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. By late afternoon the sky was still and grey, tired of its exertions. It was the longest day of my life and you clung on to it.
Waited it out. You were born right at the cusp: 11.59pm. One minute to midnight.
The thing about pregnancy is the weight it expounds in you. You grew, heavy as a fruit, inside me. And in those days when I was shining and ripe, you would beat me like a drum even then. Mould me with the jab of a heel or the furl of a fist into an awkward kind of sanctuary which I kept hard and taut as a pea pod. You erupted on a bloody screaming riptide. It heaved and hammered and pounded at me. I burst. Belched you out. A small 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. You were still screaming. I reached out a hand to touch you: your tiny clenched fists, slick black head, warm puckered body. I had expected a cold, slimy thing.
You stopped screaming and I started. The pain racked up, walled up, closing in. There was a fuss and a scuffle and the doctor was called. I had a sudden premonition that something catastrophic was going to happen. But it had already happened.
Take it off me! I cried. I had birthed a monster which had ripped me apart with its relentless claws. And they did, they took you away and I wanted to crawl off into a corner in the way that ani-mals do when they are ready to die. I wanted to be alone with my pain, to nurse it, to lick my wounds. But my body was not my own anymore and hadn’t been for a long time.
The surgeon was a woman. I remember being grateful for that. She’ll know what to do, I thought. She’ll be sympathetic to how the anatomy should go down there. I can trust her. Her face told me it was going to be a tough job, but I didn’t care. I submitted myself to her wholly and sighed with a deep shudder when I felt the sharp prick at the base of my spine. That euphoric tingle. Absolution. Drowning out the thumping, gaping emptiness. Finally, here was my moment of unfet-tering.
What are you going to call him? she asked, trying to make conversation whilst she worked. I marvelled that she could be so casual and light when dealing with such slaughter, such sombre butchery. When one wrong stitch could mean a hole closed too tight, a jagged edge to my soft folds down there. I imagined my cunt as a war zone, a sort of cubist farrago, Picasso’s Guernica. I don’t know, I replied. I had to stop myself from saying I didn’t care in the least, that I didn’t love you. Not yet. Well, at least he’s healthy, she said, smiling, as if that excused this mess. You must be so happy. A good weight. Well done you!
Yes. Well done me. And all I could think was if this is supposed to be the happiest moment of my life, then something is very wrong.
I love that Luke can love an ancient digital clock radio. Old school. He rescued it from a car boot sale, didn’t even haggle over the two-quid asking price. Cradled it in his arms like new-found treasure. He sleeps curled on his side now, his knees tucked up like a fetus. I don’t suppose you’ve ever checked out the closed eyelids of your sleeping kid brother. The skin’s so pale and silvery it almost shimmers, and it’s so thin that it looks painted on – I can even see his darting corneas underneath. A beautiful thing my brother’s eyelids. And his nose. The way his nostrils flare as he breathes in, relax as he breathes out – such a tiny movement, his body alive. It’s elegant when you look closely. Like the shape of his ears, the line of his lips.
I’m not weird. I’m dead.
It was about six months ago that Luke was on his way to see me in Exeter. I was stationed at the headquarters of the Devon and Cornwall Light Infantry – in Barrack Road, near the hospital. I was Infantryman Sean Savage, not-yet-deceased. I don’t know if I’d say I was looking forward to his visit; in one way, I ached to see him, but what he might ask, and what I might say when he got here, made my heart skip a beat to think of. I felt nervous, like a patient waiting for an operation. Maybe it would be easier just to hide everything behind false smiles and fun-poking, give him a tour of army life without the craziness. Army life lite.
Eighteen forty-five hours: Luke’s on his way by train; I’m on guard duty – stag – a boring job, stood there, my feet aching, weapon in hand, index finger lying flat along the trigger guard. I pace slowly from one end of the barrier to the other. In the guard house, Geoff Harris sits slumped on his chair, belly straining against his white shirt. Falklands vet, civvy now of course, but a hell of a soldier in his day, that’s what they say anyway. Stood next to him in the doorway, my mate Pinocchio; we take it in turns to stand near the heater.
Anyway, it’s drizzling, the light soft, grey, and fading. Last of the rush hour traffic’s swishing past on the main road. Sodium street lamps cast halos and the wet tarmac shines orange. My boots make a scuffing noise when I turn.
“Hi, excuse me.”
“Can I help you?”
A guy, short black hair. Round face. Glasses. Backpack.
“I’m looking for the hospital.”
“Yep. You’re close. Just -”
He walks towards me. Digs in his pocket.
Little details. The concentrated weight of the rucksack. The guy’s expression: bit hysterical, a lot scared. Black hair plastered to his forehead, dark skin, dark eyes. A round face, an Asian face.
“I have a map. Can you show me?”
I take a step back.
“Just up there, mate.” I jerk my head in the direction of the Royal Devon and Exeter hospital. Tighten my grip on my weapon.
A thin strand of red wire, snaking it’s way up one arm strap. Alarm bell red, and fastened in place with black duct tape. Uh oh. I swing my assault rifle up.
“Everything OK, Savvy?”
I look away, just for a split second. Long enough to see Pinocchio’s eyebrows shoot up, his lips make a ‘whaa’ shape.
The sound of quick pattering footsteps. I turn back. Wide open eyes, the guy snarling through rage and fear.
I am mist.
Night. Real, dense, outdoors night. Nothing like the safe, half-lit gloom he’s known from a life in the city. Here, the trees all around hold the darkness tight, pressing it in. Behind him, the distant thrum of the M5, but so low and constant that it’s just a layer under the silence, like silt. Apart from that, nothing. Just the thud and scrape of his spade striking the earth, pulling loose, striking again.
There’s a ghost of rain, breathable, invisible. Cold and drifting so fine it might as well be dust, sticking to everything. But the boy is anything but cool, because digging is hard, hard work. Has he ever even done it before? At his old house. He remembers the garden as he brings the spade down. The flowers. They spread and bloom in his mind, and he colours them in reds and purples and blues and the world is made vivid again. His mum grew them, he must have helped. He must have gardened.
But that’s not the same as this, here. Gardening is for growing things.
This is something else.
The spade is starting to grind now that he’s getting further down. The top layer was easy: twigs and leaves and mulch all softened from the winter above and the rot below. Now, waist-deep, it’s getting stony. He stops, breathing hard. He lets the long handle fall against the side of the pit – he’ll call it a pit, because that’s as far as he can let this go, in his head. He pushes his fists into his spine, gets his breath back.
He climbs out of the pit. Right at the edge, there’s the girl. Lying on her side exactly where he set her down. Facing him.
He wipes his forehead with the back of his sleeve. Considering the size of her, considering how he could probably circle her waist with his hands, getting her there from the car they parked maybe half a mile away was like carrying a sack of rocks. Dead weight: that’s what it’s called. He had to keep shifting the load, her stomach folded across his shoulder. Closer to her than he’d ever dreamed, his hand splayed across the back of her thigh, just to hold her steady in the fireman’s lift.
He closes his eyes now and runs it back, cementing the feel of her in his memory. The swish of her hair, hanging down behind him, thick enough to feel it brush against his jeans. He replays the sensations of it, the bounce of her hands against the backs of his knees. Could he feel the contours of her chest, upside down, against his shoulder blades? Yes. He tells himself it’s a memory, not imagined. He could feel that. And the warmth of her skin, even through the clothes? Yes.
The beating of her heart?
He opens his eyes. Swallows hard.
Yes. He remembers that too. He wants it badly enough, so he takes the blank and fills it with the detail and then it’s there, in his version of it, for good. He remembers it all.
Half-covered with the battered tarp, she is motionless. The tips of his fingers sing with the desire to reach out and touch her. They ache with it. The drizzle has sunk into her hair, binding the strands into damp cords: it’s settled into a sheen on her face, catching scraps of light that skitter across the ground as the canopy of leaves shifts above them. Her eyes are closed. Her black-and-red checked shirt clings in sodden folds around her, and the tarp lifts and falls in the breeze, as if it is breathing. And she is beautiful.
She is beautiful.
THE LAST FIELD
On the first day of his retirement, George’s wife had a stroke. It was December 27th, a day that even she didn’t work, and he was making tea for both of them, as he always did in the morning, when it happened. As he pushed open the bedroom door, she seemed to be sleeping, an unusual turn of events but one that filled him with joy on this first of many new, different days. Perhaps, for once, she was going to sit for a bit whilst they drank their tea, instead of disappearing off to do something. Perhaps it was a surprise for him, to share this newness, if only for a little while.
He allowed himself a little smile as he put the tray by the bed. Two cups of tea, the last of the mince pies. Her back was turned to him, her t-shirt, as ever from some conference or other, just visible. This one, he remembered, was from a place she had been every year that they had been together, a place he had never been.
‘You don’t want to come. It will be so boring for you,’ she had said. ‘I’ll be in work mode, standing around, clutching papers, and you’ll just feel like my caddy, trailing behind me. There’d be no point.’
‘You know I’d be happy to be your caddy.’
She pressed her forehead against his then, in that way that she did. ‘Oh George, you’re so lovely, so good.’
He’d said once, very early on, but the hotel is paid for, I don’t have to stay with you all day, it would be nice to meet your colleagues. She had smiled and nodded, said maybe, but she had not mentioned it again, not even as she set off for the airport that time. And neither had he. So he had never gone to Luxor or Mainz or Harvard. Never met the people she wrote papers with. Never seen anything that inspired her, except the British Museum and the books she brought home from her other office.
There was always a book by her bed. It was usually in her hands by the time he brought the tea, a pencil tucked into the spine. She would look up and smile as he came in, pushing herself back against the pillows a little, readying herself for tea. This time, though, the book was on top of the covers, opened so she’d started reading it, but slightly askew, as if she’d just put it down for a minute whilst she had a bit of a doze. He got into bed as carefully as he could, not wanting to be the cause of waking her.
She didn’t stir. Pleased with himself, he sat back, reached over for his mug and drank a little. When he noticed his tea was cooling down, he wondered if he should give her a gentle shake. Was it worse, he wondered, to end her doze, a doze that signalled a different tempo to their days or to let her sleep until her tea was the wrong temperature and he have to make another?
In the end he chose to wake her. On this day, on this day of all days, he wanted to drink his tea with her. It was selfish, he knew, more selfish than he usually allowed himself to be. But he knew she would understand. Eventually. She didn’t stir, though, when he put his hand on her shoulder. In fact, when he put his hand on her shoulder, she neither moved nor spoke, not even a murmur. For a last, beautiful second, he smiled.
The winner of The Bath Novel Award 2019 will be announced on Twitter @bathnovelaward after 8pm on Thursday 19th September, with the full winner’s announcement posted here after 10am on Friday 20th September.
Read the full shortlist announcement here