Monthly Archives: August 2013

An extract from ‘Thirteen’

ThirteenIt was at around that time that I began to be intrigued by ‘Valerie’. She was perhaps in her late twenties and obviously ill. She travelled from 13 Wish Road to the Cornerstone Community Centre on Palmeira Square every Monday and Thursday evening for her’positive thinking’ classes. Her scent of lavender and citrus was one of those lingering smells that would surprise me long after I’d dropped her off. I would get a haunting echo of it, reverberating somehow as it diminished throughout the evening.

One of the things about Valerie that I found shocking was that, although I could see that she was deteriorating, I was still totally unprepared for the first time I saw her genuinely, desperately sick. She was helped out of the house by a nurse, who smiled at me appreciatively when I opened the cab door and said:’Could you get them to help at the other end? They’re expecting you, and they’ve got a wheelchair ready.”Of course,’ I told the nurse, whose dark blue uniform made Valerie’s illness seem suddenly, intensely real.

Valerie herself was as serene as ever. I couldn’t think of anything to say, so she was the first to break the silence. She spoke in a new-whisper.

‘Snowdrops are going to be out soon,’ she said.’The shoots are coming up in the garden. I hope I’ll get to see them bloom. They’re so delicate.’

I glanced across at her, at her frailty, and wondered at how gracefully she could refer to her impending death.

‘Yes,’ I said, and added after a pause:’though I think I prefer bluebells. Have you seen some of the bluebell woods out towards Haywards Heath?’

‘Yes,’ she said with pleasure.’I really think that, in profusion, they are the most… wonderful colour.’

When I stopped the cab I said,’Do you know when your class finishes this evening? I’d be happy to come back and collect you.’

She smiled, and leaned over slightly to pat my arm.

‘It’s okay,’ she told me,’Malcolm, the man who runs the course, will be giving me a lift home this evening. But thank you.’

The next time I saw her, she had to be helped down the path by the nurse, who accompanied her in the taxi and who went off to get a wheelchair at the other end. I got out as usual and opened the passenger door and Valerie took my hand. And, as I helped her up, her body buckled slightly so that I had to catch her round the waist. She was emaciated, and clutched at me slightly as she righted herself, and she smiled with gratitude and said’Thank you’. I looked at her, just looked at her, as the nurse came down the ramp with a wheelchair and whisked her away.

I was never asked to collect her again.

A couple of weeks later, the subject of Valerie came up when I radioed Sal at the office, to order a return lift for the fare I’d just dropped off. Sal was one of the night staff in the radio room and had often allocated me the Wish Road job. As it was a soporifically quiet evening, I knew she wasn’t busy, so I chatted for a while and then asked,’Oh, by the way, Sal, do you remember that sick girl who used to go to the Cornerstone Community Centre? Did she die? I haven’t picked her up for a while, and I just wondered.’

‘Doesn’t ring a bell, Stephen,’ she said,’where did she live?’

’13 Wish Road.’

And then Sal said the words that would change everything.

‘But Stephen,’ she told me,’there’s no such address. Wish Road doesn’t have a number thirteen.’

I stared at the hand set.

‘Are you sure?’

‘Yup,’ she told me.’Sorry I can’t be more helpful, Stephen. This one hasn’t come through us. Are you sure she wasn’t one of your private clients?’

I drove to Wish Road, mystified by Sal’s assertion that there was no number thirteen. But she was right. Someone had been sufficiently superstitious to make sure there wasn’t a number thirteen. The odd numbers went: 7,9,11,11a,15 17… There was no thirteen, and number 11a was a totally different house from the one that I’d been visiting all this time to collect Valerie. It was a plain building, from the fifties probably, with a built-in garage that had a brand new metal door painted white and a small garden, full of roses. Number 13 had been a standard 1930s semi, with diamond-leaded windows and peeling green windowsills in need of a lick of fresh paint.

If the house I’d been collecting Valerie from wasn’t on Wish Road, where was it? I felt a curious feeling of horror at this thought, because it seemed so bizarre and impossible. Okay, I would agree that I’ve led a sheltered life and because of that, I can accept that there are some things I haven’t experienced. But houses that disappear?

My first reaction was to assume that I must have been waiting in an adjacent road, mistakenly thinking of it as Wish Road. But no, Wish Road was beside Wish Park, and there – as I looked round – was the tree whose shade I’d so often parked beneath as I waited for Valerie’s bookings to come through. And, though Sal had said so casually that it must have been one of my private clients, at this stage in my taxiing career I had no private clients.

I sat at the wheel of my cab and logged the computer onto’manual’, so that I was off-system, and sat looking at 11a Wish Road and thought, What does this mean?

And then I remembered. The driver. Phil. Who’d said those enigmatic words to me when I’d talked to him about my oddly altered perception when I was exhausted.

What had he said?’Don’t go there.’

He’d known something.

I radioed Sal once more.

‘Is Phil on this evening?’ I asked her and, when she told me that he was, I drove back to Boundary Road and staked out the office. I parked up by the Audi franchise near the tennis courts, where I could be inconspicuous, then logged out and waited. If anything was guaranteed to make me feel strange, it was sitting in my cab in silence as the calm of the dead of night settled precariously around me. The only sound was that of the engine, which I would run every now and then to keep the cab warm. It seemed that I had to wait an incredibly long time, but it can’t have been more than an hour or so before I saw Phil park up and go into the office. I got out of the cab, crossed over, and followed him in.

He was by the coffee machine as I came down the corridor.

‘Hi, Stephen,’ he said,’coffee?’

I nodded and he pressed a button on the machine and I watched the desultory trickle of coffee dribble down into the brown, ribbed plastic cup.

‘Quiet night,’ he said.

‘Phil,’ I said,’I'm glad I bumped into you, because I wanted to ask you something…’

He glanced at me questioningly as he passed me my coffee.

‘Something’s happened,’ I said.

He saw my expression, raised his hand to silence me and said,’Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.’

He was glaring at me. I was so surprised by his reaction that I was speechless for a moment.

‘I can see,’ he said,’that you’ve crossed the threshold. I did it once or twice in my early days as a driver. A lot of drivers who’ve done the night shift have come pretty close to it, though most of them will deny it. One or two that I’ve known over the years have dabbled in it. But I’ve only known one person who really tried to find out about it. A good friend of mine.’

‘What happened to him?’ I asked

‘He died.’

© Sebastian Beaumont 2006

An extract from ‘The Painted Messiah’

The Painted MessiahThe contessa’s villa sat on the side of Ax Alp overlooking Lake Brienz.  The building itself was a nineteenth century hotel that had fallen into disrepair by the time the contessa had bought it.  After restoring it and taking up her year-round residence, she rarely left the property.  Her sole extravagance was her annual party.  If she visited friends or attended exclusive parties, Malloy hadn’t heard about it, and the people at her parties were terrible gossips.  She was a writer and a scholar.  What she needed she sent for, everything from books to groceries.  If she had wanted society she would not have bought such an isolated property.  The solitude of the place was impressive, too.  The building sat on a small plot of level ground close to a thundering cascade.  It was surrounded on all sides by a dense forest that went on for miles.  From the contessa’s veranda, it was possible to see Interlaken at one end of the lake and the town of Brienz at the other.  That was as close as she let herself get to civilization.

Her ‘man’, as she call him in English, Rene, stood at one of the doors to the house watching him as Malloy came down the mountain on a rather steep and sometimes treacherous trail next to the cascade.  Another individual might have treated Malloy with a friendly wave of his hand, but Rene simply stared.  Like the contessa, Rene’s age was indeterminate.  He could have been fifty or seventy.  He kept his oddly battered head shaved and even though he was dark-skinned, there were no lines to offer any hint of his generation.  He possessed hulking shoulders and a cinderblock torso.

Despite his age and size, Rene moved with the ease of an athlete still in his prime.  Unlike his employer, Rene possessed no talent for language.  His native tongue Malloy had never been able to determine.  The language he spoke with the contessa was a kind of pidgin Italian, though he freely mixed German, French, and English words into it, the accent inevitably misplaced.  Rene’s grammar, Malloy had decided long ago, was capricious.

One thing Malloy did not doubt was Rene’s loyalty to the woman he served.  In her presence, his eyes stayed on the contessa with the zeal and ferocity of a trained Rottweiler.  When he had approached within fifteen feet, Malloy stopped and said to the man, ‘Is the contessa at home, Rene?’

As this question was no doubt absurd, Rene did not bother answering him.  He simply flexed his enormous fists and walked away.  Malloy went to the veranda, intending to knock at the front door, but Claudia de Medici was already waiting.

‘Thomas!  This is a pleasant surprise!  Have you moved back to Zürich?’

‘I’m here on business for a couple of days.  I found myself with a free afternoon, and I thought I’d drop by.  I hope I’m not interrupting something.’

‘Nothing that can’t wait.  Come in.’  Malloy stepped into the elegantly furnished entryway.  The contessa led him to the drawing room and began fixing them both a glass of Scotch.

‘Are you working on a new book?’

‘I have written my book.  If I write another, it won’t be for some time.’  Her smile was almost bashful, her beauty as stunning as ever.  In fact, it seemed to Malloy that she had not changed in the years since he had first met her.  She was still a woman seemingly not quite forty, making her, he realised with a sudden sense of despair, over a decade younger than he was!  ‘And you,’ she asked with a smiled that suggested she had read his thoughts, ‘are you still a freelance editor?’  There was a bit of playfulness in this, something of an old joke between them, and Malloy smiled.

‘Retired, I’m afraid.’

‘Not entirely, I hope.  You are far too young for something as dreadful as retirement.’

‘I keep busy.’

‘You are living in New York, I hear.’

‘You must have good sources.’

‘One of the advantages of having interesting friends.’  Malloy resisted asking about her sources.  The contessa was quite effective at gaining confidences, obstinate about keeping them.   ‘You are happy.  I can see that much in your eyes.’

‘I’m getting married this spring.’

‘And you decide to step back into the life—in order to save yourself from your happiness?’

Malloy laughed at the jab.  He had not thought about it like that, but he supposed one could see it that way.  He certainly would not have been the first man to sabotage a perfect relationship.  Still, he was reluctant to admit as much, even jokingly.  Besides, he had never really left his profession—only fieldwork.  ‘If I wait any longer to get back into things, it will be too late,’ he confessed.

‘Perhaps it is not your destiny.’

‘I believe we make our own destiny, Contessa.’

‘It’s my opinion that people are not thrust into hell because of their passions, Thomas.  I think they jump in for the sake of them, but I’m not going to change your mind.  I can see that.  Why don’t you tell me what brings you here?  It has something to do with business, I think.’

The contessa worked as successful mind readers do.  She read body language.  She made grand assessments and waited for reactions.  That she was sweet about it and seemed to enjoy him at some level made it less disconcerting, but the truth was her insights into his character had always left him wondering if she might really be clairvoyant.

‘I thought you might be able to explain something for me.’  The contessa tipped her head slightly, her expression curious.  ‘What do you know about twelfth century icons of Christ?’

‘I know I enjoy them very much, though I would imagine I’m in the minority.  What would you like to know?’

‘A twelfth century Byzantine portrait of Christ—what would something like that be worth, say in mint condition?’

The contessa smiled as if dealing with a precocious child.  ‘That is difficult to say.  Assuming it to be in excellent condition, you would have to know if it had been restored.  Then there is the provenance.  That would affect the price significantly.  People interested in paintings of that sort value the history at least as much as, if not more than, the artistic merit.  Many icons come with a portable altar.  There might be a unique box or travelling case.  Many of these are works of art themselves.  Some are encrusted with precious jewels, which would add value beyond the particular artistic merit.  A famous person might have owned it.  A great deal of information about the royal family in Constantinople is available from that era.  The princess Anna Comnena, who met the first Crusaders, for instance, even wrote a book detailing her impressions of the army’s leaders, including the relatively unknown Baldwin of Boulogne—the man the barons would ultimately elect as the first king of Christian Jerusalem.  If it were her personal icon and you could prove it with documents, such a piece would be extremely attractive to some buyers—myself included, though I am not a collector—but without a great deal more information I couldn’t begin to make a guess.’

‘I have a general description of it.  It’s on a panel of wood, maybe a quarter of an inch thick, thirteen or fourteen inches tall and eight or nine inches wide.’

‘Gold?  Inlaid jewels?’

He shook his head. ‘Here’s the thing.  The people involved are paying twenty-five million dollars for it.’  The contessa’s expression did not change, but Malloy was certain something happened—call it a twinkling in the eye or a moment of recognition.  ‘When I started trying to price comparable pieces, rare as they are, the pieces go for forty or fifty thousand up to half a million.  Nothing is close to what my people are paying.’

‘What is your involvement, Thomas?’

‘I’m moving it for them.’

‘Smuggling it?’

‘Just moving it.’

‘If the people are lying to you about the nature of the object you have to deal with or the price they are paying, my advice is to walk away.  Better yet… run.’

Malloy smiled and shook his head.  ‘I can’t do that.  This is my chance to get back to what I do best.’

‘Then I don’t think I can help you, except to say you might be looking at something like what happened to you in Beirut.’

Malloy felt like a man who has just had the ground under his feet taken away from him. ‘How do you know about Beirut?’

‘People talk, Thomas.  Rather, I should say, they whisper.’

‘The people who know about Beirut don’t.’

‘A neophyte intelligence officer inherits half a dozen low-level agents who pass along outdated information.  Some months later he is running a network of twenty-four agents and catches wind of an attack being planned against the US Marine base.  He passes the information to his superiors and tries to discover specific details.  The following day he is in a GI hospital with six bullet wounds.  Eight of his people are dead, and the rest are evacuated.  Two days after that, some two hundred and forty marines perish, and Reagan orders American troops from the Lebanon.’

Malloy tried to smile, but he didn’t make much of it.  ‘They say we learn from our mistakes,’ he said finally.

‘Actually,’ she answered, ‘they say we should learn from them.  The truth is that most people have a regrettable tendency to repeat them.’

‘Do you know something I don’t know, Contessa?’

‘I know a great deal more than you do, Thomas, about a great many things.  In this instance, I know that you never trusted your superiors again after Beirut and, because of it, you were so successful it caused problems that you could not even imagine.  I know, too, that your skills aren’t what they were.  You have lost that scepticism you are so proud of, say what you will to the contrary, and you think you can handle this job without much trouble, because it looks like nothing can go wrong.  You expect that once you do you will be back to your old tricks, not lying in your grave.’

Malloy felt a chill run down his spine when she mentioned his grave.  ‘Tell me what you know.’

‘I know you are standing in a pit of vipers, but you don’t see them because you are half asleep.’

Malloy wanted to argue or explain or at least to defend himself, but he resisted the impulse.  A woman capable of bringing the Swiss banking system to its collective knees was not someone he cared to underestimate.

© Craig Smith 2006

An extract from ‘Mrs Lincoln’

Mrs LincolnI read today the account of my attempt at suicide. It was printed in the Chicago Inter Ocean – on the front page, where appear all the worst stories about me. This is not to say that Doctor Patterson allows the eighteen female lunatics under his care newspapers. Indeed, he believes all news of the outside world to be excessively agitating.

It is Doctor Patterson’s opinion that the tumult of late-nineteenth century life is responsible for diseases of the brain. He explained to me during our first interview that female nerves – which are smaller than those of men – are more likely to be drained of their vitality by the chaos of modern life.

“Newspapers would only serve to overstimulate your already deranged mind,” he told me.

Our interview was conducted in Doctor Patterson’s office, which is fitted up like a lady’s boudoir,with velvet chaises and a great many needleworked pillows. A décor designed to make comfortable the doctor’s patients, all of whom are possessed of those female nerves. “I do not believe that my mind is deranged,” I said to the doctor. “Addled from too much chloral hydrate and laudanum, perhaps. Unsettled by the ten-year anniversary of my husband’s killing. But not deranged.”

The doctor pulled at his coarsely curled hair, which he wears quite full in the back, as if to give the impression of a very large brain. “Your bladder is hysterical,” he informed me.

“My bladder, I believe, was damaged by the birth of my last son.” “You are also possessed of an irritated spine.”
“It is an arthritic condition which has come upon me since I passed fifty.” “And you have engaged in the religious excitement of séance.” “As has Queen Victoria and fully one-third of the gentlemen of my husband’s cabinet.”

I had perhaps sounded too definite in defense of my sanity, for Doctor Patterson raked at his unruly beard with impatience. “How long shall I have to stay at Bellevue Place?” I asked, in a tone more meek.

Doctor Patterson relaxed back in his leather chair, the only masculine furniture in the room. “You should not dwell too much upon leaving,” he told me.

“But seeing an end to my time here will make the days more tolerable.” I watched the doctor handle the paperweight he kept upon his desk, a dragonfly caught in amber – an object which feels cruel to me, put before ladies who have been committed here.

“You will remain at Bellevue Place,” said Doctor Patterson, “until I – and your son – determine that your reason has been restored.” “And how shall you determine such a thing?”

The doctor rose and went to stand before a lace-curtained window which looked out upon the lawns surrounding the asylum. “Treatment at Bellevue Place,” he explained, “is based upon the wholesome benefits of fresh air, moderate exercise, and the therapeutic effects of cooling baths, in addition to the essential practice – particularly for those of the female sex – of moral restraint.”He turned to regard me with a stern expression.

“I shall decide your sanity by your willingness to participate in these activities.” “I shall do whatever you require to prove my underangement,” I told him.

In the three days since that interview, I have every morning gone for a drive in the asylum carriage – which unlocks only from the outside – through the unpretty town of Batavia. Batavia is a quarry town, and everything in it – its clapboard houses, horse carts, and citizens – appears dulled by a fine powdering of limestone. I have also allowed Mrs. Ruggles, the matron with the forearms of a man, to soak me three times a day in cold, salted water, and have engaged in countless games of croquet with my fellow madwomen, games which are frequently halted so that Mrs. Munger, the wife of a Chicago banker, can shout at her ball. I pursue no moral unrestraint, and at the close of each afternoon, I walk the long path that traverses the asylum grounds all the way to the unfinished greenhouse at the edge of the property, returning by way of Mrs. Patterson’s kitchen garden in the event that lady should wish me to dig up some radishes for the good mental hygiene of it.

It is because of these walks that I have come to know Doctor Patterson’s retarded daughter, Blanche, a twelve-year-old child with the facial features of an Asiatic. And it is because of Blanche that I learned of the story of my attempt at suicide.

Blanche is not an attractive child. Her face is too round and her eyes too lidded. Also, Mrs. Patterson keeps her weak-minded daughter’s hair braided so tightly, the child’s head appears too small for her chubby body. But Blanche possesses an affection which does not demand to be deserved, and seems incapable of judging anyone’s actions; and over the days that I have been here, I have developed a fondness for her.

I visit with Blanche every afternoon, for she is a child oo firm habits, and that is when she comes to sit upon the stone steps of the back porch with a pair of shears and her family’s discarded newspapers. Newspapers which she snips into elaborately outfitted – though oddly shaped – silhouettes of ladies.

On this day – the day I read about myself in the Chicago Inter Ocean – I returned from my walk to find the girl sitting in her usual place upon the porch steps, a stack of newspapers at her side and her white lawn dress littered with snippets of black words.

“Abraham’s Widow!” the child exclaimed upon seeing me. Someone – the girl’s mother, I expect – must have explained to Blanche who and what I was, and this piece of information is all of the explanation which has fixed in her mind, for she uses it in place of my name.

“Good afternoon, Miss Blanche,” I said in reply. I like to call her “Miss” in the Southern style for the way that it causes her to touch her tight plaits, as if they have miraculously turned into curls. I gathered my skirts and sat beside the child. “Let me see what you have done.”

She handed me the newspaper she was cutting into a lady, and then rested her head upon my shoulder. At twelve, Blanche retains the warm, milky scent of a much younger child – a symptom, perhaps, of the undeveloped state of her mind.Whatever it is, I have found none of Doctor Patterson’s treatments as soothing as his daughter’s head upon my shoulder.

“You have made this lady very elegant,” I told her. I held the paper to the sun to better see the silhouette, and also to read something of what that scoundrel Grant, who has astoundingly become president, might be up to. I have passed the whole of my life following politics and only find it agitating to my female nerves to be cut off from them.

The late-afternoon sun was low and shining into my eyes; and I nearly returned the paper to the frail-minded girl without reading any of it. But as I angled the page to set it down, I was stopped by what I saw there. For just above the place where Blanche had cut her lady’s head was the headline, “Another Sad Chapter in the Life of the Demented Widow.”

I gasped, a short intake of breath which made Blanche stare up at me with worry, as if she feared she had stabbed me with the scissors. But it was not Blanche’s scissors which had so unsettled me; it was the knowledge that I am the country’s only demented widow, and that the sad chapter reported in the newspaper could only be my own.

“Are you well, Abraham’s Widow?” Blanche shouted into my ear. Almost all of the retarded girl’s utterances are rendered in overemphatic tones.

“I think an insect must have flown too near to me,” I told her. And though the child waited, I did not return the newspaper, for I knew that once I let her take possession of it, she would cut the story about me into a paper lady’s bonnet.

“Would this lady not be prettier with a hat?” I asked her. “Yes, Abraham’s Widow!” she exclaimed. “Let me design one for you.”

Carefully, I removed the shears from Blanche’s awkward fingers, and while she watched closely, as if I were working magic, I cut a small flattopped hat which took up very little of the page.

“Is that not more in fashion?” I said, putting the paper lady into Blanche’s hand and tucking the rest of the page into my pocket. At that moment, I saw Mrs. Patterson coming from the kitchen garden with a bunch of stunted-looking onions in her arms, and quickly worked the shears back into Blanche’s fingers, for only the staff – and this retarded child – were allowed scissors. Then, I rose from the steps. “You are going, Abraham’s Widow?” asked Blanche.

“Yes,” I said. I feared that if Mrs. Patterson encountered me, she was likely to ask me to return with her to the garden in order to enjoy the wholesomeness of weeding. “Cut a lady with a great long train,” I told Blanche, “and show it to me tomorrow.” “I will!” she shouted.

I rested a hand upon her narrow head and then disappeared into the dank coolness of the limestone building.

I found myself in the corridor outside the asylum kitchen, where I could see the Negro cook pouring something pale and watery into a cauldron. Doctor Patterson believes in the benefits of a bland diet upon unquiet minds, and all the food we are served at Bellevue Place is tasteless and white and smells of steam. Although I was anxious to read the story about my suicide, I did not linger here to do it, for I believed Mrs. Patterson to be headed toward the kitchen with her onions – though not, I assumed, in order to add them to our lunatics’ supper. I hurried toward
the staircase at the end of the hallway and rushed up to my second-floor room.

I have been told by the doctor’s wife that my room is one of the best of the asylum, in recognition of the position I once held. That may be so – I have not seen where the other inmates are kept. Still, the room makes me think too much of a second-class boardinghouse. The bureau is oak and was once decorated with acanthus leaves, which have long since fallen away, leaving behind their ghostly outlines. I have also a rocker which has been made to an odd geometry, and when I sit upon it, it makes me feel as if it wishes nothing more than to pitch me to the floor. The room
possesses a table, covered with a cloth which has lost half its tassels, and a strange little desk decorated with the carved face of an angel at the joining of each of its legs. Only the mattress is new, for I had it brought here on my first day – less to keep myself from sleeping upon bedbugs, as to avoid placing my head where others have dreamt their mad dreams.

I have a view of the river from my one window, but there are bars over the glass.

Shutting the door behind me – although a desire for privacy is thought at Bellevue Place to demonstrate an unwillingness to participate in the institution’s therapeutic activities – I dropped into the inhospitable rocker and took the newspaper clipping from my pocket.

“On the evening following her trial for insanity,” I read between the cuts on the page, “Mrs. Lincoln, overcome by melancholy, eluded the Pinkerton guards stationed outside the door of her hotel room and escaped to the pharmacy of Squair & Company. Acting in appearance both anxious and uncoherent, Mrs. Lincoln demanded of the druggist a lethal mixture of laudanum and camphor. When Mr. Squair expressed concern over providing such a poisonous concoction, the despairing lady informed him that she intended to use the potion to bathe a neuralgic shoulder. Unable to dissuade Mrs. Lincoln from her request, the druggist retired to a back room, and after some short moments, during which the demented lady grew increasingly agitated, Mr. Squair returned with a bottle marked ‘Laudanum – poison.’ Grabbing the potion from the druggist’s hand, Mrs. Lincoln rushed into the street; whereupon, she immediately poured the entire contents into her throat. Then, she returned to her hotel to await her death.

“The nation was only spared further sorrow by the fact that Mr. Squair had recognized the Widow of the Martyred President beneath her veil, and divining her purpose, substituted burnt sugar water for the laudanum.”

No one would believe this of me, I told myself.No one would believe that a fifty-six-year-old lady who is slightly arthritic and plumper than she should be could escape two Pinkertons. No one who knows me could believe that after all which has happened in my life, I would choose to end my life over commitment to the madhouse.

But of course they will believe it. For now that I have been proven insane, anything might be believed of me.

It is a singular experience to be adjudged insane, to sit in a courtroom in muddied skirts while seventeen witnesses swear to your derangement. My skirts were muddied because the man who had come to bring me to the courthouse, Leonard Swett, would not allow me to change my dress. “I am not to let you from my sight,” he explained. He was standing in the doorway to my room at the Grand Pacific Hotel with two policeman behind him. “We want no possibility of escape.”

“We are on the third floor of the hotel,” I said. “Even as a young woman, I could not have managed it.” Mr. Swett was a former colleague of Mr. Lincoln, and his resemblance to my husband had always made me feel warm toward him. I recalled then that Mr. Swett had lately acquired the title of “The Insanity Lawyer,” and I made myself smile into his stern face to remind him that we knew each other, and that I was Mrs. Lincoln and not his latest lunatic.

But Mr. Swett only fixed me with a hard look from behind his small, pince-nez spectacles. “I shall give you the choice of traveling to the courthouse in my carriage,” he said to me, “or in that of the officers.”

“Where is Robert?” I asked him. “Where is my son?”
“Mr. Lincoln is waiting at the courthouse.”

Robert is waiting there to defend me, I told myself. He will not let Mr. Swett commit me.

The courthouse was filled; overflowing with people who had known I was to be tried for insanity before I had. They crowded the benches and stood in the aisles, staring at me with eager expressions, in hopes, I supposed, that I would succumb to a fit of madness before their eyes. But I barely saw these men and women who had come to witness a mad First Lady. I searched only for my eldest son, finding him at last at the front of the courtroom behind a mahogany desk, well dressed and handsome in dark brown. Robert has inherited none of the homeliness of his father. His nose is straight and aristocratic, and his mouth is well formed. The only features he shares with his father are a small indentation pressed into his chin, which I always wish to put my finger to, and eyes of
an uncommonly pale shade of gray. Robert’s left eye, however, does not sit entirely straight in its socket. As a child, he was made by doctors to look through keyholes to straighten that eye, and now that Robert is a man of thirty-one, it is a little less inclined – save when he is overcome by some emotion, when it cants violently toward his nose.

“Please,” I begged Mr. Swett, “take me to my son.”
“You must sit with your own lawyer,” he instructed me.
“Is Robert not my lawyer?”
“Your lawyer is Mr.Arnold.” And as if Mr. Swett had conjured him out of the air, Isaac Arnold, a man who had been a friend of Mr. Lincoln’s and of mine during our time in Springfield, stood beside me.

“Perhaps you do not consider Robert experienced enough,” I said to Mr. Swett. “But I believe in my son and would prefer to have him defend me.”

Mr. Swett made an irritated exhalation. “It is Robert who has drawn up the application to try your sanity.”

“Robert wishes to commit me to a madhouse?” The noise of the courtroom grew deafening, and I found I could draw no air into my lungs.

“Robert only wishes what would be to your benefit,” said Mr. Swett. “And Mr.Arnold is here to ensure that afterward, no one can say that what is decided was not to your benefit.”He gazed pointedly at Mr.Arnold, and though I wished to understand the meaning of that gaze, I could not, for the gaslight which reflected from the lenses of Mr. Swett’s pince-nez spectacles turned his eyes to opaque disks.

Mr. Arnold, however, seemed in no doubt of what he was to do. He led me across the room, where he settled me behind my own mahogany table, in opposition to that of my son, and sat quietly as Mr. Swett proceeded to call sixteen witnesses to testify to my madness.

I was light-headed from my inability to breathe and brain-numbed from shock; and as the witnesses spoke about my insanity, I sometimes believed that this was no more than a dream induced by laudanum, hoped that it was.Nothing the witnesses said of me was untrue, and while all that I had done and thought had felt sound at the time, now that it was spoken aloud, it seemed the behavior of a madwoman.

“Mrs. Lincoln spent more than six hundred dollars on Belgian lace curtains,” declared a clerk employed at Mattock’s Department Store. “Though she told me that she does not own a home.”

“I have had to send men to search the rooms next door to Mrs. Lincoln’s,” said Mr. Turner, the manager of the Grand Pacific Hotel, “because she insisted there were assassins in them plotting her death. When my men found no assassins, Mrs. Lincoln swore they were living in the walls.”

“One night,” whispered the hotel housekeeper, her voice full of the excitement of relating scandal, “Mrs. Lincoln was found running through the hallway in her nightclothes, shrieking that her son was trying to murder her.”

Once the hotel employees and shopkeepers had finished describing my lunacy, five doctors were called. I had been examined by none of these doctors, had only seen them over the past weeks coming from Robert’s room at the hotel. Yet it was the opinion of each of these gentlemen that I had lost my reason due to excessive grief on the brain force.

The testimony of the doctors cut through my opiate-like haze like scalpels. I am going to be shut away with madwomen! I clutched at Mr. Arnold’s hand to keep myself from acting as insane as I was being described – and to urge him to make some defense of my sanity. But Mr. Arnold only patted my fingers with a palm made slick from the pomade he uses to fix the hair combed to hide his baldness and did not question any of Mr. Swett’s witnesses.

When the sixteen witnesses were done, Mr. Swett called Robert Lincoln to the stand.

He will not go, I told myself. And when Robert did go, taking the seat at the front of the courtroom and keeping a hand pressed over his flawed eye, I told myself that still, he would not tell this courtroom he believed me insane.

Apologizing first for obliging my son to speak about unhappy occurrences, Mr. Swett asked him to describe my spending since I had returned to Chicago.

“My mother has spent two hundred dollars upon soap and perfume,” he told the court.“More than she will be able to use in a lifetime. She has purchased seven hundred dollars’ worth of jewelry, which she will never wear, for she lives in mourning. The closets in her hotel room are so overfilled with purchases, she is in danger of being crushed by them.” “Does your mother suffer from delusions?” asked Mr. Swett. “She hears voices.Men who argue about the most efficient method of murdering her.”

My son told the crowded courtroom every irrational thing I had done these past months, every utterance I had made that sounded unreasoned. “My mother’s behavior has become so erratic,” he declared,
“I have had to engage Pinkertons to follow her whenever she leaves the hotel.”

“Can you tell us,” said Mr. Swett smoothly, “why you drew up the petition to try your mother’s sanity?” Robert’s left eye tugged furiously toward his nose. I hoped the emotion pulling upon it was love. Or at minimum, regret. But I had never possessed any skill for reading my eldest son’s emotions, and could not say which one now worked upon him.

“My mother has long been a source of great anxiety to me,” Robert told Mr. Swett. “Do you believe she is insane?” asked the lawyer. Please, say no. For I am your mother, still. Robert rubbed again at his defective eye. “I have no doubt of it,” he declared.

A lady seated behind me gave a small cry, as if she had come upon something shocking, a dead bird or other small animal; and for a moment I could not be certain that it was not I who had made the cry.

Mr. Arnold called no witnesses. It required only ten minutes for the gentlemen on the jury to decide me mad.

I thought then that I would go mad, for I was terrified of being locked up with lunatics. But for the moment, it was not fear I felt. Even the deepest dread could not be more powerful than the emotion which now claimed me, which overrode all other feelings. And when my son at last crossed the room to me, I found voice only to speak the one thought which pushed out all others.

“To think,” I said to him, “that my son would ever have done this.” It is now well past midnight, and I am seated at the little desk carved with angels reading again the story I rescued from Blanche’s scissors. As I read, I can hear above me Mrs. Wheeler’s pounding. Mrs. Wheeler beats her fists upon the walls of her room every night until she is dosed with chloral hydrate. But Mrs. Ruggles, the mannish matron, is a sound sleeper, and so the sound continues without ceasing for most of the night. During the day, Bellevue Place is subject to a different type of pounding noise, that of the machinery at the nearby quarry breaking up the limestone. I sometimes imagine that the asylum possesses a malevolent heart, and that those of us who are confined here will never escape the sound of its beating.

I do not sleep at Bellevue Place. But it is not only Mrs. Wheeler’s ravings which keep me from resting. Since my arrival here, I have given up my nightly doses of chloral hydrate and laudanum, refusing them when Mrs. Ruggles comes with the bottles. I have long suspected that the drugs addled my thinking, even when awake, and since I have left off taking them, I have grown more clearheaded. However, I also cannot sleep. And so I find myself awake, reading lies about myself printed in a newspaper.

None of this is new to me. From the time that I became a president’s wife, I have come upon too many stories of myself which contain no truth. I have read that I spied for the Confederacy during the war and sold my husband’s speeches to pay for my dresses. I have read that I kept slaves in the basement when I lived in the President’s House and stole the silver when I left it. I have read so much that is false and so little that is true, that I now believe paper cannot be made to hold one authentic fact of my history.

Perhaps it is this last thought which made me look inside the odd little desk for pen and ink, made me write the sentence, “I read today the account of my attempt at suicide,” then made me write everything which fills these pages, more true words about myself than have ever been inked before.

I cannot say if it is this tally of words which decides me. Or if it is only the unfilled hours of my sleeplessness. Whichever it is, I somehow am decided. I shall spend my nights at Bellevue Place writing my true story. Every night, while Mrs. Wheeler pounds upon the walls and the other mad ladies cry out in their sleep, I shall write. And the exercise will help the night to pass. And make me forget that I am locked in a madhouse. And keep me sane.

My first strong recollection is of the summer my mother died. I was six years old and the month was July – cholera season in Lexington, Kentucky. The windows of our brick house on Short Street had been shut tight against the poisonous gases that drifted up from the lowland swamp, and my mother was forced to breath her last in a shuttered house filled with the scent of her own bloodletting – the smell of the big copper penny known as the “large cent,” used to keep shut the eyelids of the dead. For two days, the stifling house swelled with the screaming of my mother giving birth to her seventh child in twelve years. Usually when my mother’s time came, my sisters and brother and I would be taken out of the house, sent up the road to Grandmother Parker’s farm. But because the air was filled with cholera, we were forced to remain at home, shut in with the sound of our sibling being delivered. I passed most of those two days in the sweltering bedroom I shared with my three sisters, removing the dresses from my china-faced dolls – relieving them of their clothes made me feel cooler – and singing hymns to cover my mother’s screaming.

During the night of the second day, the house went quiet, and I woke feeling panicked, for I had gotten used to the cries, which had come at intervals like the ringing of a clock. I slipped from the bed I shared with my eldest sister Elizabeth and crept into the hallway. There, I spied the thirteen-year-old wet nurse sent down by Grandmother Parker coming from my mother’s room, my just-born sibling in her skinny black arms.

© Janis Cooke Newman 2007

An Extract from ‘Gladiatrix’

GladiatrixLysandra would never forget her first time.

Alone, she walked through the darkness of the passageway towards the sun-filled amphitheatre.

As she drew closer to the arena, she became aware of the sound from above — a rhythmic, thrumming cadence that began at the periphery of her consciousness. Distant at first, it became hypnotic as a siren’s song, permeating the stone around her, penetrating her to the very bone.

Lysandra battled to keep her churning emotions in check. Fear flowed like ice in her veins and, for a moment, she faltered. Yet part of her surged with the desire to face this most terrible of challenges. It flared only briefly but burned hot enough to sear away her terror. From the darkness, she stepped into the harsh light of the arena.

The roar of the crowd was a living thing as it assaulted her and she staggered beneath its violent intensity. Row upon row of the screaming mob surrounded her, the amphitheatre stuffed full, as if it were a massive god gorging upon base humanity. Her vision swam as she registered innumerable faces, twisted and distorted their mouths wide open with howls of lust and anticipation.

A fetid stench rose from the freshly raked sands, filling her nostrils with the reek of blood mingled with the excrement of slaughtered animals. The venatores, wild beast hunters, had been at their work that day, butchering hundreds of creatures for the delight of the crowd. Her stomach lurched, raw nerves screaming at her to run, to flee this Tartarus made flesh, but again she fought down the urge.

The baying of the frenzied mob increased in its intensity. Her eyes narrowed as she gazed across the arena, emerging from the tunnel that faced her own was another woman.

Her opponent.

Lysandra was only vaguely aware of an arena slave rushing up and thrusting two short swords into her sweat slick hands, as she focussed on her adversary. She realised that the combatants must have been chosen for their physical differences. Whereas she was tall and slender, her foe was short and solidly built, her limbs chunky. To Lysandra’s Spartan eyes, she looked downright vulgar. Huge, udder-like breasts heaved beneath her white tunic, threatening to burst forth from their confinement; this study of Gallic typicality was crowned by straw-coloured hair, the final contrast to the raven-black tresses of Lysandra’s own. There were but two similarities: the weapons they bore and the certain knowledge that, in scant minutes, one of them would die.

The Gaul turned towards the dignitaries’ box and raised her right arm in salute. Lysandra, though unused to arena etiquette, emulated her. She had spent her whole life in ritual observance and made the gesture with confidence. Not that it mattered. The richly clad Roman whom Lysandra assumed to be Sextus Julius Frontinus, the governor and procurator of Asia Minor, did not bother to acknowledge them, his attentions clearly focused on the dusky charms of the slave girl by his side.

Lysandra turned towards her opponent. The two women faced each other, the sea green eyes of the Gaul locked with her own. For interminable moments, they stood, their emotions mirrored in each other’s gaze, and Lysandra felt a sudden, sharp regret at their plight. Though they were not foes of their own volition, Lysandra knew she could not stay her hand. Her eyes hardened with the resoluteness to survive and she saw the other woman nod as she too came to this realisation. They raised their weapons.

For a few heartbeats, all was still. Then, with sudden violence the Gaul attacked and the strangely beautiful sound of iron striking iron sang out as Lysandra met her assault. The Celtic warrior screamed and cursed as she laid in, imbibing rage-fuelled courage. There was no order to her attack, just a constant flurry of hacking blows, dealt with all the strength the stocky body could provide. She was like an avalanche, rolling forward, crushing everything in her path.

Lysandra knew she must be as mist.       Most of her life had been spent preparing for combat: a ritual training to be certain; a ceremonial skill never meant to be called upon. But now, in the stark reality of mortal threat, this hard-learnt preparation came to the fore, and her body responded instinctively.

It was as if her opponent was moving underwater. As the Gaul initiated an attack, Lysandra’s own blade moved to deflect the blow. Do not meet force with force, she told herself as she weaved away from the onslaught. Her refusal to engage in a slogging match seemed to encourage her foe, who redoubled her efforts. The Gaul’s feet churned up sand as she pursued Lysandra across the arena, slashing and cutting at thin air. As the chase wore on the crowd erupted into a chorus of boos and cat-calls, demanding more action.

Sweat now plastered the Gaul’s yellow hair to her forehead and darkened the sheer white tunic to gauzy grey. Lysandra saw her shoulders heaving with exertion as she evaded another attack. The Gaul paused momentarily, gasping for breath.  It was obvious that she was weakening but, more, her confidence had drained and the insidious worm of doubt was now eating at her fighting spirit. Gamely, she raised her swords, and a sudden rush of fire filled Lysandra’s veins. Now, her instincts screamed at her. Now was the time.

She countered.

Her blades whirled, blurring in their swiftness as she mercilessly turned defence to attack. Her opponent’s parries became desperate with awful suddenness as she back-stepped, swords moving frantically to deflect the onslaught.

Lysandra pressed in harder, the Gaul only stopping her now at the last possible instant. She redoubled her efforts, engaging in a final, furious exchange of blows with her desperate opponent. As the impact of blade on blade jarred her arm, she felt the last strength leech from the barbarian and smashed through her guard.

There was no remorse: just a wondrous, beautiful exultation as she felt the other woman’s flesh yield and part as she rammed home her blade. The Gaul made a choking sound, huge gouts of blood vomiting from her mouth and the gaping wound in her chest. Lysandra dragged the blade out and using her own momentum, spun about. Her sword caught the staggering woman on the neck, severing the head from her body; it arced skywards, the eyes and mouth wide open, frozen forever in shock and pain. The headless body stood wavering for what seemed like an eternity before, with an almost reverential slowness, it toppled backwards and crashed to the sand, blood spreading out behind the gaping neck like a crimson pillow.

With chilling abruptness reality crashed back down upon Lysandra, the roar of the crowd cascading over her, drenching her in a waterfall of dissonance. It was a bizarre tableau: the corpse still twitching at her feet and, approaching her, a tall man, clad as Charon, the ferryman of the dead, bearing a hooked staff. Slowly, and with a degree of ceremony, ‘Charon’ retrieved the Gaul’s head, then attached her torso to the staff. At the same formal pace, he retreated, dragging the body behind him.

Lysandra backed away, then turned and made her way towards the tunnel, her thoughts a confused morass of elation, guilt and relief.

© Russell Whitfield 2007

An extract from ‘The Gift of Rain’

The Gift of RainWe arrived in Port Swettenham late in the afternoon. I watched as Yasuaki was led away by the staff of the Japanese Embassy. I raised my hand in a small wave, but he never returned it.

I saw Kuala Lumpur through different eyes now. The last time I was here was ten months before, when we celebrated my father’s forty-ninth birthday in the Spotted Dog Club just in front of the cricket ground. The ground was busy now and the sun cast shadows across it. I heard the thock of the ball hitting the bat and then cheers as the batsmen ran. It was a typical afternoon in the biggest town in Malaya: the English would leave their sweltering offices, go to the Spotted Dog to have a gin and tonic, play some cricket, and then return home for a bath before coming back to the Club for dinner and then dancing. It was a good life, a rich life filled with ease and enjoyment.

The Japanese Embassy was a converted bungalow on a hill just behind Carcosa, the Governor’s Residence. The road leading up to it was cool and shady, the old angsana trees littering the way with leaves and pods and twigs which crackled under the tyres. The sentry at the gates saluted us through.

A youth in military uniform brought our bags to our rooms. The fan was switched on immediately. Then we went out on to the verandah where we were served glasses of iced lemon tea.

The Embassy looked down a wooded slope thick with flame-of-the-forest trees. I stood drinking my iced tea and thought about the concept of duty. It was so confusing and, it seemed to me at that moment, so pointless. Where was the freedom that each of us had been born with?

Endo-san had told me, at the beginning of my lessons how strong the duty of teaching, once undertaken, was. It was never offered freely or haphazardly. A prospective student had to provide letters of recommendation in order to convince a sensei to accept him. Teaching could never be accepted without all its burdens and obligations and I had come to understand this eventually. Yet in my mind I heard Yasuaki’s words, warning me about duty and generals and emperors. A moment of unease made me finish my drink in a single swallow.

“We must pay our respects to Akasaki Saotome-san, the Ambassador to Malaya” Endo-san said, and led me downstairs.

Although the bungalow was built in the typical Anglo-Indian style, with wide wooden verandahs and large airy ceilings, it had been decorated strictly by a Japanese hand. The rooms were partitioned by paper shoji screens, scrolls of calligraphy hung at well-lit positions and a faint smell of incense cleansed the air as we passed. Stark, skeletal flower arrangements stood on low tables. “These are Saotome-san’s personal arrangements,” Endo-san said. “His ikebana has won prizes in Tokyo.”

Another youth in uniform slid a door open and we placed our cotton slippers outside before entering. The room was bare, save for the photograph of a sullen-looking man. Endo-san knelt on the straw mats and bowed to it. I did not, but I presumed the portrait to be that of Hirohito, the Emperor of Japan. We sat with our buttocks on our heels and waited for Akasaki Saotome-san to join us. He entered and there was a flurry of bows before we were at last comfortable, sitting in front of a low wooden table.

The Ambassador was a handsome, almost haughty looking man, except when he smiled. Then he looked merely handsome and ordinary. In his dark hakama and black and grey yukata robe patterned with silver chrysanthemum blossoms he appeared much older than Endo-san, although his movements were just as graceful.

“Is this your student I have heard about?” he asked in English, smiling at me. His voice was as thin as rice paper. I could picture him as somebody’s grandfather.

“Hai, Saotome-san,” Endo-san replied, indicating to me to serve the hot sake.

“How is his progress?”

“Very good. He has made tremendous advances, physically and mentally.”

Endo-san had never once commented expressly on my studies. Now, to hear it before the Ambassador, was immensely pleasurable. It added to the warm glow left by the sake.

They switched to Japanese immediately, the older man looking intently at me to see if I could follow. His accent was slightly rougher than Endo-san’s but after a few sentences I sailed with the flow of their conversation.

We were served dinner, which came on little porcelain plates, each with just one or two pieces of food. I enjoyed the marinated eel, the sweetened chicken and the little rolls of raw fish wrapped in rice and seaweed. The Japanese ate daintily, examining their food in the chopsticks, commenting on the taste and colour and texture, almost as though they were making an artistic acquisition. I was famished and had to restrain myself from eating too much, too fast.

“How is the situation in Penang?” Saotome asked, placing his chopsticks on an ivory rest.

“Quiet and peaceful. Our people are contented, and there are no distressing matters,” Endo-san replied. “We have found a suitable house on The Hill to lease for our staff and their families. I will show you some photographs later. Apart from that, I have almost unlimited free time and we have been travelling around the island.”

Saotome-san smiled. “Ah, such splendid days, hmm?” he said in English. I stopped eating, knowing it was a direct reference to me. Suddenly the old man did not seem so benign. I felt like a mouse before a tiger.

“You seem to know a lot about me,” I said, disregarding all the lessons I had learned and facing him directly.

“We make a point of knowing our friends,” Saotome said. “I hear your father is the head of the largest trading company in Malaya?”

“Not the largest – that would be Empire Trading.”

“We have some businessmen interested in Malaya. Would your father be interested in collaborating with them? To be partners with these people? They are keen to obtain a share in your father’s company.”

I thought of what he wanted to know. Deep down, I suspected our future could depend on the answer I gave. I said carefully, “I think he would be willing to listen – after all, he has nothing against your countrymen – but I cannot speak for my father. You will have to ask him yourself.”

Saotome leaned back and said, “Oh. I suppose we would have to.” He picked up another piece of fish. “Would you consider working for us, once you have finished your studies? I understand you have only another year to go.”

I gave Endo-san a questioning look. “In what capacity?” I asked.

“As an interpreter, a person to liaise with the Malayan people. A goodwill officer, you might say.” Saotome saw my uncertainty. “You do not have to reply now. The work will be interesting, I can assure you.”

I promised Saotome that I would consider his offer and he smiled and said, “Now, would you like to have more of that eel? I saw you were quite, quite hungry.”

The shoji door opened, and a soldier knelt and bowed to Saotome. Next to him was a young Chinese girl in a robe, her hair tied into two lacquered balls.

No words crossed the space between the kneeling figures and us, until Saotome said, “Lift her face to me.”

The soldier put his fingers under the girl’s chin and brought it up.

“Open her robes.”

The same hand dropped from the girl’s chin and pulled her robes open to one side, revealing a single breast as yet uncertain of its shape, still breaking into womanhood.

Saotome studied her and gave a smile, tiny as a cut. His throat pulsed, and his tongue touched briefly the corner of his lip, an artist’s brush adding the final, perfecting stroke.

I found that the eel no longer tasted so sweet.

© Tan Twan Eng 2006

An extract from ‘Bulletproof Suzy’

Bulletproof SuzySo this guy with a dead bright white shirt starts running about on the stage hauling wires and tapping mikes and all that, then these others get up on the lorry. Joanne passes me a smoke but we don’t have a light so I ask this wee guy in front of me, who’s like a hundred and fifty or something, dead wee and thin and pure sweating and he takes out a lighter, all shaking hands and grunts and wheezing and all sorts. He’s got these big red blotches all over his face, but not like birthmark scars, so maybe he’s got cancer or somesuch and Joanne offers him a smoke as well which is maybe a bit dodgy if it is cancer that’s all over him, but he takes one and emits many more grunts and wheezes by way of thanks, then lights us all up and turns away.

Maybe it’s about ten minutes later, but not much more, and it starts getting really squashed, and it’s ending up that I’ve got my face practically in the old guy’s thin white hair, and I can hear him breathing, fast and shallow like he’s got asthma or something, and I’m almost getting the boak what with being able to smell his hair and his papery old skin and thinking that those reddy blotches might be able to sort of jump right off him and onto me and that’ll be me fucked with cancer.

There’s a couple of girls behind me and they’re getting really squashed as well, and it must be pretty bad cos one of them starts panicking and giving it gush and sob and I-want-to-go-home and all that to the other lassie, maybe her big sister, but it’s getting more and more packed all the time behind us and the two girls eventually sort of slip in between me and Joanne, then the old guy, and try to snake their way further to the front, maybe hoping to get out that way. I don’t really mind crowds and that but this is getting dodgy, and I can tell that Joanne’s not enjoying it much either.

Joanne pulls my arm again, and I can hardly turn, but when I do I see her on tippy-toes giving it big wave and shouting how-you-doing to someone I can’t see.

~ That’s Bobby down here. Come on, says Joanne, and I, of course, go follow her like some sad puppy, as is my usual form these days.

So it’s total murder getting through to the guy, but when we eventually do it turns out that he’s got a bit of a perch on one of the plinths holding the big black glossy statue of some long-dead horsebacked city-father type.

Joanne’s had a bit of a sweat for young Robert Harris, but she’s been quite cool on the subject for a while and I haven’t heard his name mentioned for some weeks. He’s a nice enough wee guy, quite thin and wasted like he maybe has some mild needle problem, but his gear is cool and he has a nice smile. He always looks at me and Joanne a bit funny, as if he thinks perhaps we’re an item. Or maybe it’s because I don’t smile too readily and he thinks I don’t like him, but whatever, he’s all big grins and can’t be nicer.

~ Come on up! he shouts, and he bends right down and grabs Joanne’s hand.

By the time she gets squeezed up there with the rest of them, all balancing on this like very thin ledge, there’s no space at all for me, especially with me being slightly broader of beam than the slender Joanne, but sundry youths perched alongside her and Bobby do a very considerate shuffle to create a further gap, and I am duly hauled up. And even on this slightly elevated position the difference in the view is amazing, and we’re even nearer the stage than before, maybe thirty feet or so away from it.

Atop the Council Halls there’s a team of camera-folk, all shoulder-strapped vidders and tripods and such, scanning the George. Bobby points out others on top of the higher office buildings. A helicopter passes over, quite high right enough, doing a big arc way above, and that’s maybe a radio copter doing the normal weather and traffic bumph, but then, a minute later, another copter comes in, lower and slower and this is certainly a rozz-copter, with bright stripes and numbers and letters, and that gets the biggest cheer of the day so far, all squinting upwards and roaring at it to fuck off and giving it the fingers, but it takes its time arching over the George before dipping out of sight, the noise staying a lot longer. And the mike is tapped along to the beat of the copter, which does eventually fade, and the guy with the big bright white shirt cracks a couple of limp jokes and introduces some suit or other.

I don’t know the speakers, but Joanne, who’s on the other side of Bobby, shouts over to tell me who’s who, and Bobby, also being interested in such things, tells me a bit of background. So-and-so isn’t a bad egg, but such-and-such is a brown-nosing two-faced fuck who’s a cheek showing her face and this other one is trapped in the past, and it’s all a bit dry for my liking but the last lassie is good, some housewifie from up our way, and she gets tore right in, suggesting that we might like to make a bit more space for ourselves by going into the Council Halls and making ourselves a cup of tea seeing as how it’s our hall and our tea and if we’re not going to be asked then we can be forgiven a one-off lapse in manners etc etc and that gets the crowd going good style. At first it’s like a joke, and I don’t know if maybe she’s had a wee bead in her or perhaps she’s one of those wifies who gets hammered into the tranquis as soon as she gets out of the sack, but she starts getting really sort of carried away and saying that we really should do it, that it’s our cally and our city and if the bastard councillors won’t turn up to do their job then why don’t we just team in there and do it ourselves, her claim being that at least we would do it right.

So there’s a few bodies down the front who do start actually making their way over towards the front of the Halls, but the rozzlings are thick in force and stay well-put, reinforcements strolling in cool-style from the side drags. The rozz-copter suddenly reappears, much higher than before, and starts making a circle, in view all the while.

So this woman’s really set the cat among the proverbials, and this suit has appeared and grabbed the mike off her and she’s giving it laldy, trying to get it back, it’s like something out of a bar brawl, and you can only hear snatches of what she’s saying and he’s saying, and it’s almost all abuse, and the drumming of the copter above makes it impossible, so then the other bodies are getting into it, and a few punters are trying to get onto the stage from the crowd.

The boos start up close and loud, and this head-bummer rozzer with mega-glistening bunnet and fluorescent stripes suddenly strides right up onstage, two underlings in tow, grabs the mike and passes it to one of his boys. It’s switched off. The heid-rozzer gets the woman and starts reading her the works, but she’s still game for him, maybe she’s gone into like hysteria or something, and even with the racket from the copter and the crowd you can hear her screaming fuck you, fuck off and all that, and every time she does the crowd gives it yoo-ha, so this burly underling rozzer makes a bid for her, gets her in like an arm-clamp and the other one helps and they all just march right off, dragging her in a fairly brutal manner which causes mighty upset, the cheers becoming very dark and angry and merging into a huge and rather scary thundery-type roar.

Someone close behind us, maybe on the next plinth, lobs a bottle. A glass bru bottle. It misses the rozzers, who by this time are dragging the woman off the back of the stage, but is almost immediately joined by a hail of other missiles, mostly empty cans. From where we are I can see the heid-rozzer talking into his jacket. The bottles are starting to fall atop the rozzers stationed afront the Council Halls, and the bunched yellow coats get closer together, bowing their skulls and turning their black round hats towards the crowd by way of paltry defence. But the missiles start to connect, and the roar of the punters is now a nasty thing altogether, filled with screams and the sound of genuine panic. Those below us start shoving forwards, but it’s hard to tell if they want to, or are just being forced to by those behind, and looking at them it’s impossible to say if they want to either. It’s like the crowd is getting sucked towards the Halls, and can’t stop, even if it wants to, and it’s like within a few seconds it’s turned into one of those mad surges you see on old football games, and thank fuck we were where we were and not down there.

But right then Joanne starts trying to get down. Bobby jumps, holds his hands up for her. She jumps, then they both help me, and right away I make for the nearest drag.

~ Where are you going? Joanne shouts to me, wide-eyed and flushed, and I’m amazed that she is actually enjoying this, which by her expression she surely is.

~  Where the fuck do you think? I shout back, home!

But I’m going nowhere fast cos the surge comes again and it’s a definite suicide shot to try and get across it to the side-drag, so I turn back and get myself in firm against the base of the plinth. The bodies pour past, like stones in a river, bouncing off each other, getting squashed for a few seconds against someone or something, then getting pushed around it or them and flowing on. I’ve got a good grip on the stone base of the statue. Joanne and Bobby have gone altogether now, and even though I know they can’t be that far away there’s no chance of seeing them unless I get back up on that plinth.

I stay put for a minute, hoping a gap might appear so I can make a bid for Glassford, but the bodies slow and start to get madly compact. Someone nearby must’ve fallen cos there’s a really blood-curdling scream that you can’t even tell if it’s a man or woman, and it’s so muffled and horrific, then suddenly stops and starts so you can tell that someone’s being trampled. And there’s folk screaming to stop, and trying to give directions, and then there’s another one down and howling and fights are happening and people are pulling at each other, holding their kids up in the air, climbing onto each other’s shoulders. The screams spread, and even the sound of the copter seems to fade even though it’s right overhead, and there’s no shouting any more, no roaring, no cans and bottles landing, no cheering, just screaming from the entrance to the Halls where the crowd has become a big solid unmoving lump.

The rozz copter suddenly veers up and back and away, but another comes in low to take its place, and it’s unmarked, maybe a news crew or suchlike, and at the same time you can see the roofs of a couple of the meat wagons pushing into the square, coming off the drag to the left of the Halls, and also I can see the assembled banners of all the folk who’ve not been let in, and they’re still coming forward. Maybe these other punters have taken the general rumble and screaming to be a sign of action and they want in on it, and it’s like the same thing is happening at the other three drags into George, so that everyone is trying to get in, but looks like no-one is interested in getting out, though by the screams it’s clear that this is not so. I know I want out and offsky but many others are not even in as fortunate as situation as me, and I’m staying well put.

I get myself up on the lowest of the plinth’s ledges, and even this is just a couple of feet off the deck but now I can see. No sign of Joanne and Bobby. The vans open and the riot rozz start jumping out, all black shininess and thick plastic shields, and the Halls’ massive black double-doors open right at the same time and a solid team of similarly clad riot rozz come belting out, giving it deep grumbly roar, banging their thick sticks on the shields and behaving in a tribal and beastly fashion which brings more shouts of fear in angry reply. The crowd tries to surge inside the Halls, but they only get a few feet before the sticks are extended and the shields are coming down on heads like dustbin lids and folk start going down and it’s soon like an invisible wall at the stairs into the Halls, and those who cannot get away tumble into the pile and are being severely seen-to if they get beyond it. I think I catch a glimpse of Joanne quite near the Halls entrance, but the brief flash of blonde is swallowed and I soon lose the place what with the seasick-inducing movements of the crowd.

By now the noise is totally unreal, like it just keeps getting louder and can’t be turned down at all, and then, I josh not, this team of horsebacked rozz appears from the goods entrance to the train station, which is like a normally quiet and rather decrepit looking ramp which slopes into the building housing the north-bound rail traffic, and the horses are stiff-eared and rearing and giving it loud and frightening horse noises as their riders urge them into the crowd, and just at his time a siren goes off somewhere and I’m sure my ears will burst, like someone is stabbing knitting needles right inside them, so I turn, pure panicking now, mercury aslop, and start clawing my way up the plinth, trying to get back to where we were earlier.

Someone tries to pull me down as I start hauling up to the highest ledge, but there’s no way I’m staying down there, and it’s this older guy who’s grabbed me and he’s screaming as well, but I just let one arm go, turn half-way and elbow him a cracker right in the face and he sort of howls and drops onto the bodies below. Someone else grabs at my leg as I’m almost up, but I kick and kick and connect with something softish, get free, and right away I look to see if there’s any way of getting further up, there being nothing further to mount bar the statue itself. I manage to get a hold of the horse’s tail, and I’m surprised that it’s actually quite hot to touch, what with the black metal absorbing the bright sun, but it’s a good shape to get a hold of, and with a mighty haul, then another, I get on the back of the thing, shimmy along then grab the city-father’s coat-tails, then another serious haul and I’m up and astride the shoulders of this long-dead bastard and I sit with arms wrapped about his head, legs fastened about his chest, and I can see it all, hear it all, and closing my eyes doesn’t help, and it’s like hell is happening right there below me.

Maybe it’s about an hour before I get back down. I wait until I’m sure I can make a clear run to the Glassford. By now the ambulances have managed to get through and the corpses are being loaded into the meat wagons. Bodies everywhere, mostly in a long heap covering the half-dozen steps up to the Halls entrance, but dozens of others scattered throughout the square like so much rubbish among all the cans and bags and empty sweet-pokes and fast food boxes, and dozens of green-clad paramedic types go round the bodies as fast as they can, checking who’s alive and signalling when they find someone who is. The dead are loaded into the vans pronto, and there’s a few camera-snappers moving about. And the helicopter’s still buzzing over every few minutes. 

The van nearest me, with doors open, must have at least ten, twelve bodies piled inside, and at the bottom of the pile is the old guy, and I can’t see his face but I can make out the large strawberry blotches, not as red as they were before, on his white-grey scalp.

© Ian Brotherhood 2006

Every Dark Place

Every Dark PlaceCraig Smith

The new thriller from master storyteller Craig Smith, shortlisted for the CWA Best Thriller Award in 2011.

I’ll say it was always dark. I never saw your face.’ ‘Is that a promise? Are you going to keep your word, if I trust you?’ ‘YES!’ Will Booker stood up. ‘You know, I think I believe you, Missy. Just so you believe me…’ The gunshot came as a surprise. Missy heard the echo crackling back from the trees as she was gasping at the incredible pain in her cheat. She tasted mud, her scream strangling in her throat. The next bullet jolted her, hitting below the ribs. She heard the second echo from the trees. She saw the smoke rising oddly from Will’s jacket pocket.

Ten years ago, sleepy Shiloh Springs was shaken as five teenagers were clubbed and shot to death and a sixth left for dead. But now the killer’s conviction has been overturned after allegations that his rights were violated on his arrest. Rick Trueblood is a careworn private investigator working for the Shiloh County prosecutor’s office; a veteran loner still grieving for a daughter murdered eight years ago – a crime he has never been able to solve. The judge has allowed just sixty days for the prosecutor’s office to find enough evidence to retry the case. But as Rick struggles to re-investigate a trail long gone cold he starts to uncover a rat’s nest of intrigue and duplicity with ramifications that lead closer to home than he could have possibly imagined. Booker in the meantime is out on bail. All he wants with his freedom is to kidnap and murder the two adolescent daughters of the minister who brought him to faith. When Booker finally snatches the girls, the local authorities follow procedures and file reports. Rick, on the other hand, has learned something about the way Booker thinks. In the desperate hours that follow, Rick recovers his instinct for the hunt, and with it, quite unexpectedly, a renewed passion for life.

Click here to read an extract from this book


Reviews 

‘An intelligent noir crime thriller in the mould of Smith’s previous novel Cold Rain. Will appeal to fans of John Grisham, Scott Smith, Harian Coben and James Lee Burke.’ Guardianbookshop

‘A dark and terrifying crime becomes the unlikely catalyst for one man’s redemption and another’s ruin in another stylish noir thriller from the author of Cold Rain. Goodreads.com

 

Paperback 356 pages
B Format
ISBN 978-1-905802-53-1
Release Date 23rd October 2008
Price £7.99
Ebook 978-1-905802-74-6

The Garden of Evening Mists

The Garden of Evening MistsTan Twan Eng

SHORTLISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2012

WINNER OF THE MAN ASIAN LITERARY PRIZE 2012

WINNER OF THE WALTER SCOTT PRIZE FOR BEST HISTORICAL NOVEL 2013

 

This is the second novel from Tan Twan Eng, acclaimed writer of The Gift of Rain – over 60,000 copies sold. The Garden of Evening Mists has the same sumptuous style and exotic imagery so beloved by readers and critics alike, explores the universal themes of memory, hatred and forgiveness and reveals Malaysia’s turbulent road to independence: a time of insurrection, uncertainty and terror.

Malaya, 1949. After studying law at Cambrige and time spent helping to prosecute Japanese war criminals, Yun Ling Teoh, herself the scarred lone survivor of a brutal Japanese wartime camp, seeks solace among the jungle fringed plantations of Northern Malaya where she grew up as a child. There she discovers Yugiri, the only Japanese garden in Malaya, and its owner and creator, the enigmatic Aritomo, exiled former gardener of the Emperor of Japan.

Despite her hatred of the Japanese, Yun Ling seeks to engage Aritomo to create a garden in Kuala Lumpur, in memory of her sister who died in the camp. Aritomo refuses, but agrees to accept Yun Ling as his apprentice ‘until the monsoon comes’. Then she can design a garden for herself. As the months pass, Yun Ling finds herself intimately drawn to her sensei and his art while, outside the garden, the threat of murder and kidnapping from the guerrillas of the jungle hinterland increases with each passing day.

But the Garden of Evening Mists is also a place of mystery. Who is Aritomo and how did he come to leave Japan? Why is it that Yun Ling’s friend and host Magnus Praetorius, seems to almost immune from the depredations of the Communists? What is the legend of ‘Yamashita’s Gold’ and does it have any basis in fact? And is the real story of how Yun Ling managed to survive the war perhaps the darkest secret of all?

Click here to read an extract from this book


Reviews

‘Just as elegantly planted as his Man Booker-long listed debut The Gift of Rain, and even more tantalisingly evocative. . . Suffused with a satisfying richness of colour and character, it still abounds in hidden passageways and occult corners. Mysteries and secrets persist. Tan dwells often on the borderline states, the in between areas, of Japanese art: the archer’s hiatus before the arrow speeds from the bow; the patch of skin that a master of the horimono tattoo will leave bare; or the “beautiful and sorrowful” moment “just as the last leaf is about to drop” . . . Tan writes with breath-catching poise and grace.’ Independent 

‘Complex and powerful . . . a sophisticated and satisfying novel that explores the ways time reconfigures memory.’ Sunday Times 

‘It is impossible to resist the opening sentence of this sumptuously produced, Booker-longlisted novel. . . This is a novel that. . . showcases Tan Twan Eng as a master of cultural complexities. . . This novel ticks many boxes: its themes are serious, its historic grounding solid, its structure careful, its old-fashioned ornamentalism respectable.’ Guardian 

‘A strong, quiet novel.’ New York Times 

Hardback 448 pages
ISBN 978-1-905802-49-4
Release Date 12th February 2012
Price £18.99
Hardback 448 pages
Special Edition
ISBN 978-1-905802-73-9
Release Date 7th June 2012
Price £35.00
Trade Paperback 448 pages
ISBN 978-1-905802-62-3
Price £12.99

 

God Emperor of Didcot

God Emperor of DidcotToby Frost

The second instalment in the chronicles of Isambard Smith – Captain in the service of the British Space Empire.

Tea… a beverage brewed from the fermented dried leaves of the shrub Camellia sinensis and imbibed by all the great civilisations in the galaxy’s history; a source of refreshment, stimulation and, above all else, of moral fibre – without which the British Space Empire must surely crumble to leave Earth at the mercy of its enemies. Sixty per cent of the Empire’s tea is grown on one world – Urn, principal planet of the Didcot system. If Earth is to keep fighting, the tea must flow.

When a crazed cult leader overthrows the government of Urn, Isambard Smith and his vaguely competent crew find themselves saddled with new allies: a legion of tea-obsessed nomads, an overly-civilised alien horde and a commando unit so elite that it only has five members. Only together can they defeat the self-proclaimed God Emperor of Didcot and confront the true power behind the coup: the sinister legions of the Ghast Empire and Smith’s old enemy, Commander 462.

Click here to read an extract from this book


Reviews

‘Toby Frost writes books that seem to fill a specific niche: that is books for the commuter or the frequently interrupted (system administrators I’m looking at you). You can pick up his books, read a few pages and put them down again without losing the thread of the story and still enjoy an amusing diversion.’ Fantasybookreview

 ‘Set in a universe where the suns never set on a stiff upper lip, this warm-hearted and funny interstellar romp gives the sacred cows of sci-fi a good kicking before racing home in time for tea.’  Dirk Maggs, director of BBC Radio 4’s The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

 

Paperback 320 pages
B Format
ISBN 978-1-905802-24-1
Release Date 2nd September 2008
Price £7.99
Ebook 978-1-905802-44-9