Monthly Archives: November 2013

Waterstones Book Signing for Tim Murgatroyd

Tim1Tim Murgatroyd travelled up north on Saturday 30th November for a book signing session at the Middlesbrough branch of Waterstones.

Tim’s latest novel, The Mandate of Heaven, is the final instalment in his Medieval China trilogy. Tim had a successful afternoon meeting and greeting customers and completely sold out of the first two books in the trilogy.

Tim will be continuing his Waterstones tour in the new year.

Gavin Weston – Short Story Longlist

Gavin WestonGavin Weston, author of Harmattan, has had a short story longlisted for the Fish Publishing Short Story Competition.

The Fish Short Story Prize is an established event on the literary calendar. Previous judges, Roddy Doyle, Dermot Healy and Colum McCann are honorary patrons.

Publication in the Fish Anthology (Fish Books) has been, for many authors, a stepping-stone to successful writing careers.

For more information about the short story competition please click here and to read Gavin’s short story please visit his website here.

Myrmidon Moves Into Non-fiction

Myrmidon Moves Into Non-fiction To Publish Companion To Cult TV Drama Breaking Bad

Wanna CookWe are proud to announce our first popular non-fiction title. Myrmidon acquired rights to Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Breaking Bad Companion from ECW Press of Canada.

Wanna Cook? will be published in May 2014, coinciding with the TV BAFTA awards at which Breaking Bad is expected to feature strongly among the nominations, and will be a 500 page paperback priced at £13.99.

For more information please see the press release here.

 

An extract from ‘Harmattan’

PrologueHarmattan

Niamey

January 2000

The floor feels cool against my hands. It is how I want my face to feel. Instead, my cheeks burn and my hot tears, splattering on the ground, form tiny craters and are sucked into the dust; lost forever. Like a giant, I crouch above the little landscape my tears have made. Cradling my throbbing left ear now, I rock backwards, forwards, backwards, forwards. I tilt my head to one side and then, cupping my ear, I swoop and sway above the tiny dunes and gorges, again and again, like a great, shiny aeroplane.

I think of the walks I used to take with Fatima and my mother – before I came to this house, this city. We would walk out into the bush, far from Wadata, and climb to the plateau where our ancestors lie. Sometimes my mother would weep. Often, on the way home, Fatima would be tired; we would take turns at carrying her on our backs. She was almost as heavy as me, but I didn’t mind. My mother would fix my pagne and make sure that Fatima could not slip.

You are a good girl, Haoua,’ she would say, and it made me feel so proud. Beyond the plateau, the dust is swept into a rolling sea of red by the strong Sahelian winds. If you struggle to the crest of one of these great waves of sand, and look north, all that you will see is range after range of glowing red dunes, taller even than the baobab trees. The desert is very beautiful, but one day I would like to see the ocean. My father used to tell me that there was, truly, a Red Sea. I no longer believe my father. I had been looking at my treasures when Doodi hit me. I had my back to the doorway and did not hear her come in. I had sensed that she hated me from the very first momentMoussa had introduced me to her and Yola. Yola does not hate me, I am sure, but Doodi has eyes like stagnant wells. My beautiful pictures lie torn and crumpled around the room. Most of them are so badly damaged that it would be impossible to tell what they had depicted without first gathering together many fragments. Over near the window I can just make out the shape of the prow of a boat on a piece of shredded postcard. Nearby, the mangled remnant of a snapshot of my beloved brother, Abdelkrim, in his military uniform lies forlornly by the door: the head has been severed and is nowhere to be seen. Tiny pieces of photographic paper lie scattered over the chair, the bed, the woven mat. It had been a gift from my mother.

I place one hand cautiously on the seat of Moussa’s chair and, holding my ribs with the other, I slowly straighten my back. A narrow shaft of sunlight cuts across my face and, as I pull my head back with a jolt to shield my eyes, a searing pain shoots through my body.

Yola enters. She is older than me – in her twenties I think – but much younger than Doodi. ‘Doodi has sent me to clean up in here,’ she says. Her eyes belie the coldness of her words and I know that she wishes she could help me. She stoops uneasily to pick up the debris and it is only then – although I have been here for some three months – that I realise she is bearing Moussa’s child. As she works, she makes a small pile of the torn paper on the bed. When she has finished, she glances at me, momentarily, with something close to a smile. She scoops the fragments up, turns to leave the room, then pauses, handing me several larger pieces of the postcard and the twisted torso of my brother. I open my mouth to thank her for this small kindness, but it is so dry that no sound comes out. As I watch Yola go, it occurs to me that she too has felt the wrath of Doodi. When all is still again, I move my left knee and ease my most precious surviving picture from the earthen floor. This, together with the torn postcard pieces, the headless image of my brother and the one which I keep hidden, is all that is left of my collection. I raise the battered photograph to my mouth, to blow the dust away from the image. The faces of the two anasara children smiling before me somehow give me strength, and I push myself up into the seat. With my bare foot, I sift frantically through the dust in the vain hope that it might yield the face of my brother. But Yola has carried out her duty thoroughly; not a single shred of paper has been overlooked. When I have caught my breath, I place the crumpled pictures and the fragments carefully onto my lap and begin to smooth them out. The familiar, pinkish faces are like old friends, although I have never actually seen or spoken to these children – Katie and Hope. In the photograph they are standing in some sort of compound. Locks of their strange, almost golden hair stick out from beneath their bright, knitted hats, and the ghostly vapour of their breath in the cold air frames their happy faces. One of them (Katie, I think) holds a gloved hand out towards the person who has taken the photograph. In it she holds a ball of snow! (I have seen pictures of snow before – in Monsieur Boubacar’s beautiful books in my school – shrouding the mountains of places far away, cool and clean and whiter than Solani.) Behind the children lies more snow, caught in thick pockets on a tall, dense hedge and beyond that again, on top of a hill, stands a huge, grey stone building with a tower. Near the building, spindly trees are silhouetted against an almost white sky. In the top right hand corner, a black bird flies high above it all.

The building reminds me a little of the great mosques at Niamey and Agadez, which are also in Monsieur Boubacar’s books. I am not supposed to think of my school, of my teacher Monsieur Boubacar, or of my friend Miriam. Moussa has told me I must put all of that behind me now that I am a woman. When I have smoothed out the photograph of Katie and Hope as much as I can, I set to work on the postcard. It was a beautiful picture before Doodi’s rage. In their letters, my anasara friends said that the place in this picture is called Portaferry and that it is the village nearest to their home. When I start to piece it together, I realise that more than a quarter of the image is missing now. Still, I can make out a cluster of brightly painted wooden boats on a dark blue sea. It must be quite a small sea rather than a great ocean because, beyond it, I can see the mountains of another country; blue-green mountains nestling under fat white clouds, in a sky much bluer than that in my photograph of Katie and Hope.

Monsieur Boubacar once showed me a wonderful book with a map of Ireland, where they live. It looked so tiny I could hardly believe that anyone could live there. On another page, Africa looked so big – and Niger so far from its shores – that I doubted if I would ever see the ocean. But Monsieur Boubacar said that anything was possible. He had travelled – to Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and Liberia – so I had no reason to doubt his words.

That was before my twelfth birthday.

© Gavin Weston 2012

An extract from ‘Hope Against Hope’

Hope Against HopeCarrie had been awake for some time. She never slept deeply unlike her sister who was curled up beside her in the narrow bed, like a nesting animal. When dawn began to smudge the tiny attic room window she leaned over and gazed on her face, full of what she imagined was the emotion mothers felt when they looked at their sleeping children. May was the prettiest girl alive but such a trial. It was only when she was asleep they weren’t squabbling.

But Leeds was already up and about; the heavy tramp of people on their way to the mills and factories not long before had told her she had no time for introspection.

Wake up, Mayflower. Market Day. Time to get a move on.’

May rolled over and rubbed her eyes. ‘It’s always market day,’ she grumbled.

‘Silly thing. It’s only once a week. That damp patch on the ceiling’s getting bigger. I’ll have a word with the rent-man when he next comes round.’

‘They should knock it down. This has to be the worst pub in Leeds.’

‘Nonsense.’ Carrie swung her feet put of the bed and wriggled her toes in the rag-rug. ‘Come on. The sooner we get going the sooner the day will end.’

‘That don’t make sense.’

‘And you know all about sense, don’t you, Miss Soft-Head?’

Leeds was full of inns from the coaching inns to cellars where cheap gin was dispensed to children. The Red Lion Inn by no means the worst pub in Leeds but it wasn’t the best, although those who knew it would never drink anywhere else. Half-buried up one of the many lanes off Briggate that it shared with a slaughterhouse and a tannery, both of which smelled appalling at the best of times, many a passer-by hurried past with a shudder. Had they been brave enough to duck beneath its lintel they might have been pleasantly surprised.

True, the walls were crooked, the plaster stained with damp, the counter pitted and scarred and the tables and chairs mismatched and rocky on their legs, but everything was as clean as a dirty, industrial town would allow. The beer arrived on Bob Old’s cart from Kirkstall where the river still had some sweetness in it and not the slops from a hundred latrines, factories and mills.

Carrie Hope may have been the youngest publican in Leeds but she didn’t stand for any nonsense from her customers and there was many a local lad who was banned, which may have had something to do with the small profits. She was a formidable figure behind the bar; tall, flame hair with angry green eyes and it would take a brave customer to get on the wrong side of her. She refused to give credit under any circumstances whatsoever and if any of her customers dared to drink more than they could handle, she made sure they were shown the door. She was even known to manhandle the miscreant herself although Bob was often around to give her a hand.

The building had a surprising amount of space for one so old and lopsided. The basement kitchen was large enough to swing a family of cats even if Carrie did have to wade through puddles whenever the Aire flooded, The tap-room on the floor above boasted a good fire and enough room for a weary man to stretch his legs after a hard day’s graft. A short flight of creaking stairs to the right of the bar led to another room which Carrie had furnished as a dining room for any customer who might require some privacy and a table to eat from instead of his lap.

A much narrower and steeper staircase led from that room to the attic bedroom that Carrie and May shared with two iron beds and a trunk that stood between them and was both dressing-table and clothes press. On the bare boards stood a collection of pots into which the rain dripped through the ceiling in a concerto of plinks and plonks.

When May finally emerged from beneath the blankets, she peered out of the skylight to confirm that it was indeed raining again. Dark clouds hugged the chimney pots. ‘I’ll light the candle,’ she said.

Certainly not,’ said Carrie, wriggling into her dress. ‘One of these days you’ll learn not to waste hard-earned money.’

One of these days you’ll learn not to be so bossy. Besides, if it’s waste you’re talking about—’ said May, leaping up onto the bed swinging a bucket in her hand. She opened the skylight and slung its contents down the slates, ‘—it’s that empty room downstairs. We could sleep there instead of up here and catch us deaths. It’s got a fire and it’s nearer to the privy. Or better still. I could sleep in it on me own so I wouldn’t be disturbed by your snoring.’

‘I do not snore.’

‘What a liar you are, Carrie Hope. You snore like a steam engine.’

‘Enough of your nonsense, Mayflower. Buck up. We’re on our own this morning. Bob had to go to Halifax and won’t be back ’til tonight.’

‘I hate market days,’ sighed May. ‘I never get a moment to think.’

Daydream, you mean. Here. Help me with my buttons.’ Carrie turned round.

May stood on tiptoes to reach the back of Carrie’s neck. ‘You’ve lost one. Take it off and I’ll sew another on for you.’

No time. It’ll have to do.’

I’ll have to pin it but if it sticks into you, it’s your fault. You could do with a new dress anyway. Why don’t I nip down the market when we’re quiet? There’s a lovely blue cotton one in Mrs Sturdy’s shop if it’s not already gone. She said the last owner was a mill owner’s wife from Headingley who jumped out of her bedroom window because her husband was carrying on with the parlour maid.’

Carrie pulled up her woollen stockings. ‘You shouldn’t listen to that woman. She’s a scurrilous gossip. Oh no! There’s a hole in this one.’

I’ll darn it for you tonight,’ May offered, ‘but don’t let it get any bigger. Any road, I was saying. That dress. All it needs is some new lace at the hem and neck and you’d look like a princess.’

I don’t want to look like a princess and I don’t like your being friendly with that Sturdy woman.’

Why not?’ May plonked herself down on her bed and began to brush her hair.

I just don’t. So do as you’re told.’

May put down her hairbrush and glared. ‘I know why. It’s because she keeps asking me to work for her. And she says that if I shape up I can do some proper dressmaking and—’

Out of the question. I need you here. We only just make enough now to pay the rent. So if I did let you work there—which I won’t—I would have to get someone else to take your place and pay her more than that woman pays you. So we’d be worse off. So there’s an end to it.’

May stuck out her tongue. ‘You just don’t want me to make something of missen, do you? Just because you’re happy to stop here, dishing out mutton pies and mopping up spilt beer, doesn’t mean I am.’

We won’t stop here. You know that. As soon as I’ve saved enough, we’ll find a little place in the country…’

Oh yes. The Hope Inn. In some dull village full of dull people and pigs and sheep, where nothing ever happens. You’re an ugly old maid already so it won’t make no difference to you but I don’t see why I have to go the same way.’

Less of your sauce. You’re still young enough for me to take across me knee and wallop you.’ She made a grab for the hairbrush.

May slipped off the bed and skipped to the door. ‘I’m not a baby. I’m twelve.’

And I’m eighteen.’

There you are then. An old maid.’

That does it!’ Carrie dived after May and they both clattered down the stairs, ending up in the tap-room breathless and giggling.

Grabbing a quick breakfast of cold bacon and bread, they set to work and before long the first customer of the day stomped to the bar, shaking rain off his hat. ‘Morning Mr Allsop,’ said May. ‘You’re looking very spick and span this morning. Off courting, is tha?’

Joshua Allsop was seventy if he was a day and bowed with rheumatism, but his eyes still twinkled. ‘If I were it would be you, my bonny lass. Pot o’ mild and a mutton pie and taters.’

On my way,’ said Carrie as the door opened again to admit three weavers from Skipton who came every week to sell their cloth and always stopped by at the Red Lion first. ‘Morning May. Got a kiss for me to cheer us up this wet morning?’ said the boldest of the three.

Less o’ your cheek,’ said May pulling Mr Allsop’s pint, ‘And don’t shake your coat over the counter I just polished, if you don’t mind.’ Carrie had to smile on her way down the stairs. May never polished anything if she could help it.

As the morning wore on Carrie could hear the tap-room buzzing above her head. Like a hive of contented bees, cloth and grain merchants, wholesalers and farmers sat back with their coats unbuttoned, their arms folded over stomachs swelled by buoyant trade, as the warmth from the blazing fire, Carrie’s cooking and the best beer in Leeds worked their magic.

 

Just before midday, May found herself surrounded by a gang of market traders who were celebrating someone’s birthday, so she didn’t pay much attention to the man who left a letter on the counter and called out before he disappeared: ‘For Miss Caroline Hope. Make sure she gets it.’

Two men held the door for him as he barged out and went into the tannery. The room fell silent for a moment not just because the two were strangers but that they weren’t the pub’s usual sort of customers.

For one thing, they were both under thirty years with clean, fresh faces and both stood upright without a hint of a stoop, a sure sign that they were gentlemen. They wore broadcloth coats and one was even carrying an umbrella of all things. One looked ill at ease but the other smiled as he leaned over the bar.

Excuse me, Miss, but do you happen to have a private room? Only my friend here is shy of company.’ He grinned at his companion who scowled.

‘…So that’s four Yorkshire puddings, two beef stews, one tater pie and three mutton pies…’ She looked up at the smiling stranger and grinned back. In the few seconds it took to calculate the cost of the meals in her head she also noted that whilst the speaker was not ugly, his companion was the most handsome man she had ever seen and was intrigued. She would like to have been able to find out more about him and not just who his tailor was and whether he was from Leeds. But he had already turned his back and more customers had gathered at the counter so all she could do was direct them up the stairs before turning back to the birthday revellers. ‘I make that four shillings and ninepence ha’penny.’ She held out her hand, received two half crowns and delving into her pockets handed back the correct change, all without appearing to draw breath.

The stranger continued. ‘And we’ll have a bottle of your best whisky, please, and whatever you recommend from the menu followed by apple pie, if you have it. Only when you’re ready. No rush. I can see you’re busy.’

Busy isn’t the word for it,’ she said, hoping that the other man would turn round. He didn’t. ‘Blow him, then, she muttered to herself as she dashed off downstairs to give Carrie the orders so she could be back up again before she was needed again.

See? I told you that room would come in handy,’ said Carrie when May passed on the news.

As long as they don’t mind the funny smell,’ May said from the door. ‘They look like they’re used to summat more elegant.’ Oh and do we have a bottle of whisky anywhere?’

Not sure. Nip out and get one if we haven’t. A good one, mind you. Tek the money from the drawer. And what do you mean about “a funny smell” and “more elegant”?’

Not got time to explain,’ said May dancing up and down with impatience. ‘Why can’t you go?’

You’ve got young legs. Now run along.’

I wish Bob was here. I could have sent him.’

Well he’s not. So hurry up.’

May pulled a face. ‘But you’ll have to take their dinners up. I’m rushed off me feet.’

Good.’

After another bout of face pulling, May said, ’By the way, someone left this for you.’ May took the crumpled note out of her apron pocket and held it out.

Put it on the dresser I haven’t got time to look at it now.’

I think you should open it. It looks important.’

Are you still here?’

I’m going. And I might not come back!’

I won’t hold me breath!’ Carrie called after her but May had already gone.

© Sally Zigmond 2010

An extract from ‘The de Lacy Inheritance’

The De Lacy InheritanceKneeling on the stony ground, his head bowed in prayer and his hands clasped before him Richard Fitz-Eustace tried with all his will not to release a finger to scratch at the persistent itch beside his nose. It was is if the very devil were tormenting him, even as he knelt outside the chapel and listened to Father William reluctantly reading the Mass of Separation.

“I forbid you to ever enter a church, a monastery, a fair, a mill, a market or an assembly of people.”

How can I live without ever entering a church, thought Richard as his fevered mind translated the Latin words into Norman French. How can I pray to God for forgiveness and for a cure if I am to be denied entry to His house?

“I forbid you to leave your house unless dressed in your recognizable garb and also shod. I forbid you to wash your hands or to launder anything or to drink at any stream or fountain, unless using your own barrel or dipper. I forbid you to touch anything you buy or barter for, until it becomes your own.”

Dear God, prayed Richard silently as his left hand strayed to the side of his face and scratched at the ulcerated skin, give me strength to face this tribulation. Forgive me my sins and restore me to Thy grace and to my health.

“I forbid you to enter any tavern; and if you wish for wine, whether you buy it or it is given to you, have it funnelled into your keg.”

I will live simply and will not ask for wine – only for a spring of clear water where I may pray each day and wash away my sins, if it be Thy will.

“I forbid you to share your house with any woman but your wife.”

I will never touch a woman again, I pledge, if only You will forgive me my sins and cleanse me of this unwholesome disease. She tempted me, Lord. Like the snake tempted the woman, Eve, in the Garden and brought about the downfall of Adam, she has brought me to the devil.

“I command you, if accosted by anyone while travelling on a road, to set yourself down-wind of them before you answer. I forbid you to enter any narrow passage, lest a passer-by bump into you. I forbid you, wherever you go, to touch the rim or the rope of a well without donning your gloves. I forbid you to touch any child or give them anything. I forbid you to drink or eat from any vessel but your own.”

Richard clasped his hands before him once more and though he kept his eyes tightly closed he could still see the redness around the knuckles and feel the incessant itching that plagued him day and night. Itching that tormented him until he wept along with the sores on his body.

The priest touched his shoulder and he was grateful. How long was it since anyone had dared to touch him, even through his clothing? Had she been the last person, he wondered, unable now to erase the image of her dark skinned body from his memory. She had tempted him and he had been weak. Now his punishment was visited upon him. But surely, he thought, God’s mercy was great towards those who had fought alongside King Richard in the Holy War. Surely he could be cured, by the grace of God, through prayer and washing and fasting and repentance. After all hadn’t the Lord Jesus touched the leper and declared him clean? Through prayer, it was possible for him too.

“Will you say goodbye to your family?” asked the priest gently. Richard opened his eyes and looked up at the anxious faces of the women who waited near the chapel door. His mother, Alice, looked aged, he thought, since the day he had kissed her farewell as he went off to the Crusade. She was weighed down by the grief of the burden the Lord had asked her to carry, recently widowed when his father had been killed by the Infidel, she grieved too for his brother Roger, who had also left for the Holy Land, leaving his pregnant wife, Maud, in her care. Beside her stood his elder sister Helen, married to Dutton his father’s steward, and his younger sister Johanna. They had all hoped to be kept safe under his patronage, but his return with this plague meant he was unable to stay to care for them, let alone take them in his arms and comfort them.

His grandmother, widowed and deprived of her eldest son and now one if not two of her grandsons, stood resolute. She was in charge of this family now and, as his fingers touched the pouch at his waist containing the letter she had given him the previous night, he vowed that he would accomplish the task she had set for him.

Richard slowly rose, his knees sore and his legs stiff from his prolonged prayers. He hung the wooden bowl and clapper from the thick leather belt that held the coarse woollen fabric of the dark monkish habit to his itching body, then raised the hood of the black cloak before pulling on the gloves over his reddened, flaking hands. Sadly he approached his family, keeping a distance from them.

“I will pray for you day and night,” said his mother, “and although the priest and laws decree that you should be as dead to me now, I have had my fill of death and I pray that one son at least will be restored to me.”

“Pray hard and fast, mother,” he said. “And I will remember you also in my beseeching, both day and night. I pray that one day your son will return to hold you close and gladden your heart. Meanwhile hold fast to Helen and Johanna and to your faith.”

She thrust a leather purse at him, which jingled with the sound of coinage. She was unafraid of touching him, but Helen took the bag and tossed it to the ground near his feet, restraining their mother from running forward and taking him in her arms.

With tears stinging his swollen eyes Richard turned away from the women. The sight of his mother clinging to her daughter like a feeble invalid hurt him more than anything else he had had to endure since his return. Adjusting the hood so that no portion of his face was visible, he bowed his head as the priest crumbled earth at his feet and gave him his blessings. Then he set out – not to the leper house of St Giles as he had promised his mother – but northwards, to cross the river into the newly named county of Lancashire. His destination, to the north, skirting the huge marshlands of Martin Mere to the west, was the township of Cliderhou where he would seek out his grandmother’s cousin, Robert de Lacy.

The mud squelched beneath the unaccustomed shoes that were already rubbing a new sore on the back of his left heel as Richard headed north. The chill wind of the ensuing autumn made him shiver as he walked. In Palestine the sun had been so fierce overhead that, sweltering in his chainmail harness, he had longed for the cold westerly winds of his northern homeland. But now he longed for the warmth and shelter of his family house – a house denied to him – as he trudged down towards the river crossing.

He’d resolved not to look back, but the drifting aroma of a distant fire caught his nostrils and he turned for one last look at Halton Castle. Near the chapel a plume of smoke rose, and Richard wondered for a moment what Father William was burning, until he suddenly realised that the fire consisted of all his own clothes and possessions – being consumed by the cleansing flames so that the affliction could be passed on to no-one. On the path that led from the chapel to the main keep his younger sister was helping their grandmother home. Even in the distance he could see that she was leaning heavily on Johanna with every step, and he realised that she was no longer young and he wondered what would happen to them all with no man to protect them.

Beyond the village he saw a string of ponies, laden with salt in panniers coming down the road behind him. They would catch up with him in a little while, he thought – meantime he must go on. The journey would take several days and he had no idea how he would eat and where he would sleep along the way. He could only put his trust in God.

It seemed only moments later that Richard, trudging on and bearing his discomfort as penance for his sins, heard the steady beat of hooves as the ponies came up behind him.

“Get out of my way! You filthy wretch!” Richard stopped and turned to see who was the recipient of the drover’s wrath. “You! Get off the road!” The drover, whom Richard vaguely recognised, waved a stick in his direction. “Get back! Keep away!”

As the drover passed him, the man crouched down on the far side of one of the ponies, causing it to push nearer to Richard and stamp on his foot as it went by, adding to the pain and misery already caused by the chafing of his shoe.

Richard sank down in pain onto the damp grass bank beside the road and watched as the swishing tails of the ponies diminished into the distance and the drover turned to shake the stick at him once more.

“Unpalatable cur,” he muttered as he watched them go. “I remember the time, not that long past, when you would have scraped and bowed in my presence. You mangy upstart!” he called after him. But his voice was lost to the beat of the hooves and the jangling of the bells on the reins as the snorting ponies trotted on towards the ford with their precious loads. And as he watched them go Richard recalled something that the woman had said when he was telling her of his home.

“England is a rich county. You have plenty water; plenty salt.”

He could smell the salt on the air now as he approached the tidal waters of the Mersey with some trepidation. It wasn’t the first time he had crossed here, but it was the first time he had been compelled to make the journey on foot. On horseback the ford across the river held no fears, but knowing how many had drowned making the perilous crossing his father had, some years before, employed a ferryman who, for a few coins, would row travellers across to the far side. But Richard knew that the man would refuse to row a leper like himself across the water. His only way ahead was to wade across to the other bank.

As he approached he saw that the tide was already rising. Glancing up at the sky he also noted that it would be growing dark soon which would add to the danger, but he was determined to cross tonight rather than wait for tomorrow’s low water. He continued, slipping a little on the stones that littered the track and wishing that he had had the foresight to equip himself with a knife so that he could have cut a strong tree branch to use as a stick to support his descent. He glanced around for a loose branch that might serve that purpose, but the trees were thinning as he neared the river and he continued to slip gracelessly as he went down.

The sun was already low on the horizon when he reached the water, but not wanting to wait, Richard sat on a smooth rock and gently eased off the shoes that rubbed his feet. As he stepped in, the shocking cold of the water made him give an involuntary gasp and faint clouds of blood swirled and were dispersed by the tidal pull that dragged at his aching legs. The saltwater stung at his wounds and the pebbles struck sharply at the soles of his already painful feet, but as he held up his long cloak around his thighs and waded further into the Mersey, the cold began to numb his feet and lower legs and provided some relief. He waded into the deepest part of the channel as the sun sank to his left, over the sea, creating a swirl of orange and yellow low in the sky. He couldn’t help but pause and stare at God’s wondrous creation until the sucking of the tide almost tipped him off balance and he staggered a little as he faced the far bank, the image of the sinking sun now flashing a black spot in the middle of his vision. Hitching the rough cloth of the leper’s garb even higher he tried to feel beneath his numbed feet for a smooth path and raised his prayers to ask that he should not fail by drowning so soon into his mission.

© Elizabeth Ashworth 2010

The Garden of Evening Mists Limited Edition

GOEM

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

Due to its success we have produced just 1,200 copies of this Limited Edition Slipcase Hardback. Each book has been signed and numbered by the author. You will receive a beautiful hardback book accompanied by a matching slipcase.

We still have a few left so if you’re looking for that unusual Christmas gift this year then why not treat yourself to this wonderful special edition.

To purchase your copy please visit Amazon here: www.amazon.co.uk

 

An extract from ‘The Blood Lance’

The Blood LanceNorth Face of the Eiger, Switzerland

March 24, 1997.

Those who knew it best called it the Ogre. Its solitary neighbours they named the Monk and the Virgin. For almost a hundred years after climbing became a sport it killed anyone who dared its gnarly north face. In the process its shelves and slots and crevices and steep monolithic pitches had earned a litany of fanciful names. On the outskirts of the rock there was the Red Chimney and Swallows Nest. Higher up Death Bivouac marked the site where two German climbers, having got farther than anyone before them, froze to death in 1935. There was the Traverse of the Gods—a vertiginous piece of rock that had to be crossed before coming to the White Spider—the last and most treacherous ice field, so named for the numerous crevices spinning out from its centre—and finally the Exit Cracks, thin almost vertical channels of stone leading to the summit.

The first successful ascent of the Eiger’s north face occurred in 1938. Two teams, one German and one Austrian, had started a day apart from each other but consolidated in order to come up through the Exit Cracks tied to a single rope. The next climb came nine years later with better equipment and the traces of the first climb still in place. Like the first team these left their ropes and anchors in their wake and walked out across the western shoulder. Later teams did the same, simplifying the more difficult pitches with strategically placed anchors and the occasional rope.

After that Eiger’s dark face became a proving ground. National teams attempted the summit, then solo climbers. The first single day ascent occurred in 1950. A woman summitted the north face in 1964. A year before that, a team of Swiss guides accomplished a harrowing descent by cable from the summit in an attempt to rescue two Italian climbers. They saved one and lost three of their own in the effort. There was a most direct route, called the John Harlin route after the climber who died trying to make it, a successful ski descent on Eiger’s western flank, a youngest climber, and then even a seemingly impossible eight-and-a-half-hour climb in 1981—shattering all records.

But even after it had been domesticated with ropes and anchors, detailed narratives of its various challenges and helicopter rescues, the Ogre could still sometimes awaken from its slumber and come roaring out of the alpine south with howls like that of a wounded beast. Its winds were capable of ripping climbers from their tenuous hold on life and rock. The ice was notoriously unstable, the stone pitted and fragile. Fog made a habit of following the sweet clear foehn like night follows day. It swept across the face so thick and close one climbed by touch alone. Then there were avalanches of rocks and ice and snow, the unrelenting cold of shadows never warmed by the sun’s rays and the bone-tired weariness that comes of crawling across vertical walls. Nine had died before the first successful climb. More than forty had perished in the decades since.

By the time Kate Wheeler made her first attempt in 1992 all the records, it seemed, had been set. The Eiger was a rock in the Bernese Alps with a storied history; dangerous, yes, but well travelled and almost comfortable as mountains went. Kate was seventeen—not even the youngest to climb the Eiger. She had been involved in the sport seriously for three years. She had already summitted a great many of the glories of Europe, including the legendary Matterhorn. On the first day, Kate and her father climbed for ten hours and were making jokes about the first father-daughter team—the list of firsts having grown so long as to be the stuff of humour. They planned to summit late the following evening because things had gone so well, but a snowstorm that night came in fast and white and cold and pushed them back. They made camp and tried to wait it out, but when their supplies ran low they finally retreated.

Kate tried it again the next summer, partnering this time with a young German climber she had met that spring. After forcing their way across the lower ice fields over the course of two days, they made love at Death Bivouac. They intended to climb out on the third day, and awoke to perfect weather. They started the day confidently by ascending the ramp and completing the Traverse of the Gods. Then an ice screw broke free at the Spider and sent Kate’s partner tumbling across almost a hundred metres of ice and rock. He was lucky that the worst of it was a pair of broken legs.

On her third attempt Kate partnered with Lord Robert Kenyon and a Swiss guide who had been up the mountain more than a dozen times. It had been Robert’s idea to make it a honeymoon climb. ‘We’ll take it,’ he had told Kate with the quiet confidence of a man who never failed, ‘or it will kill us both. One way or the other.’

An individual without Kate’s passion might have hesitated at such an awful promise, but Kate loved it. Robert Kenyon’s life was not about compromise and patience. He seized the moment with audacity and savoured his victories as though they were his God-given right.

©  Craig Smith 2010

An extract from ‘Taming Poison Dragons’

Taming Poison DragonsWestern China. Spring, 1196.

Daughter-in-law chides me mercilessly.

‘Honoured Father,’ she says. ‘Why do you not wear the flannel shirt I sewed for you? Did I blunt my best needle so you wouldn’t wear it, heh?’

She betrays her lack of breeding through this casual ‘heh’, and I wonder if I chose a proper wife for my son.

‘Your tender concern is a mark of true duty,’ I reply. ‘But Daughter-in-law’s best needle rests against her teeth.’

Such ripostes keep her quiet for a while. She’s working out my meaning.

‘Honoured Father, you do not eat enough millet for breakfast. You will catch cold. And your bowels will suffer. Do not blame me when you run like Babbling Brook?’

‘Give me the millet, woman. Don’t you know it is my nature to babble like a stream?’

Eldest Son coughs. He has inherited my straight back, and tallness, but little else. Where my face is restless, and given to many moods, his is round and bland as a full moon. He often furrows his brow slightly when perturbed. Today is no exception.

‘Be still, wife,’ he warns, and for once she subsides.

We listen to the gibbons crying in the woods above Wei Village.

‘Father, will you fish today?’ he asks.

I cannot help myself.

‘I’ve been a fisherman all my life, whether I go to Babbling Brook or not. Do you remember when I taught you The Fisherman’s Song? You were just a boy.’

He clears his throat. He remembers. In ways I might not like.

‘What news in the letter you received, Honoured Father?’ demands Daughter-in-law. ‘You promised to tell us.’

‘Ah,’ I say. ‘That letter is like blossom. Who knows when it will bear fruit?’

While I scoop millet with my chopsticks I sense frustrated glances. One can be too distant.

‘It is from my old friend, P’ei Ti. He promises to visit us soon.’

‘Quite so,’ says my son anxiously, weighing what is expected of him from such a guest.

Daughter-in-law flutters. She hates to be caught out, so I help her.

‘You must set aside wine. No more is needed for old men. We like to drink and feed on our memories.’

‘Just wine, heh? Is this P’ei Ti noble?’

‘Of course!’ rebukes my son. ‘Have you not heard Father speak of him? His Excellency P’ei Ti is the Second Chancellor to the Son of Heaven. He has the ear of His Imperial Majesty!’

‘Just wine,’ I say, gently. ‘The rest will take care of itself.’

In my heart I am less sure; and secretly ashamed of our simple life here, though I bear the title ‘Lord’. So does every cock on its fence. It is no small obligation to greet a man like P’ei Ti at your door.

 

Our home, known locally as Three-Step-House, perches on the contours of a hill above the village. It consists of three large buildings, all of one storey, connected by brick-lined stairs cut into the hillside. The lowest building is fronted by a walled courtyard and gatehouse. The rooms are constructed of maple and pine, with red tile roofs. Terracotta lions, dragons and phoenixes decorate the eaves like guardian spirits. As a small boy I believed they came to life when I was asleep, hopping from ridge to ridge, conversing in the language of the Eight Winds.

For the next week Three-Step-House is invaded by an army of scents, marshalled by Daughter-in-law. She is preparing lucky sauces for the visit. Aniseed bears the scent of dignity; limes are tart as watchful marriage brokers, and as powerful. Daughter-in-law’s angular face grows flushed as she works, determined not to be shamed. The maid and a girl from the village are her assistants.

Lame Fui, the wine-seller, delivers a dozen jars which I insist on testing for worthiness. That night I take down my lute and sing half the Book Of Songs before my son leads me to bed. He does not comprehend that I am singing to the sickle moon, and that she doesn’t care if I’m in tune. I might even labour my point in rhyme. Yet I sleep well, ghosts banished.

I almost prefer anticipating P’ei Ti to his arrival, and tell my son so. He nods gravely, then excuses himself to oversee the peasants. Later he takes out his small bow and shoots fowl in the reeds around the river. Daughter-in-law anxiously watches the road climbing through Wei Village. She dresses with special care, her hair piled a foot high, and held in place with combs shaped like dragons and phoenixes.

Even my grandsons are infected by the fever. I inflame them further by relating stories of P’ei Ti’s illustriousness, and my less glorious deeds when we were young. I teach them an old song:

Yoking my chariot I’m merciless to the horse.

Ride like a prince through the streets of Lo.

In Lo Town everything pleases me!

High and low mingle like thieves.

The widest streets need lanes to join them.

How noble the houses of the Royal Counts!

A long feast keeps us young and thoughtless,

Casting no shadows for sorrow to haunt.

The children sing it over and over in high, excited voices. Eldest Son only dares to rebuke them when he thinks I cannot hear.

Later, my eye strays to the three bronze-bound chests I brought here when I returned in disgrace. Decades have darkened the wood. The varnish has cracked like lines on a face. I unwrap a bundle from my long, maple-wood chest, and with unsteady hands, take out my old sword. Its vermilion tassels have faded. It is too heavy for me to twirl as I once did. Gripping the hilt fills me with repugnance and a strange excitement, so I put it away, afraid of what I have become. When I look up my quiet son is watching from the doorway. I brush away tears and pretend to have runny eyes.

‘Father,’ he says, softly. ‘Why not test another of Lame Fui’s jars before we eat?’

A good son. I reward his thoughtfulness by reciting some of my poems. He stifles yawns behind a dragging sleeve.

© Tim Murgatroyd 2010