All posts by Kate Nash

An extract from ‘The Anatomist’s Dream’

1

Debut

‘It’s a taupe,’ announced the doctor, poking at the lump with a scratchy yellow finger, ‘a French tumour they call it, though couldn’t rightly tell you why. Most unusual – got a bit of hair growing on it too, see here?’

Several thin strands grew, wet-wisped, from a lump the size and shape of a duck’s egg at the bottom of the baby’s head.

‘Might kill him,’ the doctor carried on with scientific stoicism. ‘But probably not, most likely grow a-pace with the rest of him.

My goodness though, he does rather resemble the back end of a baboon, don’t you think?’ He winked at Frau Kranz, who had never seen a baboon let alone its back end, but understood well enough what he meant.

Schweigen Sie!’ she hissed, ‘be quiet, sir,’ and nodded her head at Shminiak, who had slumped into a stupor by the empty fire, bowing his head, wondering how much more brandy it would take to make everything go away. He’d already clapped his hands about his ears to shut out the baby’s awful squalling, moaning quietly: ‘For God’s sake, make it stop, make it stop, for God’s sake . . .’

Frau Kranz, who was the most patient of women, could put it off no longer and chivvied the child up carefully from the bassinet and carried him over to the bed, clamping him onto his mother’s sweaty breast. Nelke, exhausted as she was, woke abruptly at the application and tried to swat the intruder weakly away. She refused to believe this monstrosity was of her flesh, that she had given birth at all, the pain of labour nothing more than a terrible nightmare, a twilight dream. But it was no dream, not for Nelke, Shminiak, nor the child who was oblivious of the outside world – a world that seemed peaceful on the surface, there in Staßburg as elsewhere, but the jigsaw puzzle of Europe was beginning to crack along its edges, breaking up from within, harried from without, each piece tugging itself away from the other, the Holy Roman Empire snuffed out years before by Napoleon, a shaky German Confederation created to fill the void. There was civil war in Iberia, and every Italian state clawed at the throats of its neighbours, and soon the entire continent would be utterly fragmented, Metternich packing the prison fortress at Spielburg in Bohemia, its stones reverberating with the cries of the spies and subversives he’d locked inside its walls; but no matter how many he crammed in there seemed an inexhaustible supply, and the secret operatives of princes, kings and Junkers were soon running the country up and down as freely and frequently as the tides run up and down the sands of coastlines the world over. Conspiracy and subterfuge would become bywords for those coming years through which that child of Nelke and Shminiak would grow up, and the slump of 1844 a few years later would scuttle ships and rip the Guilds from nape to knee; potato blight and famine would squeeze the stomachs of labourers and peasants across the land; there would be riots in Aachen and Bavaria, Berlin and Saxony; the Silesian silk workers would break their looms and tools; the Slavs and Poles and Magyars rise up against their masters; the railways would crash and the rivers stutter to a stop with the piling up of the dead.

But all that was yet to come and, as Philbert bullied his way out of Nelke’s womb, there was no inkling of the terrible and significant part he would play in these events, no thoughts at all thrumming around inside his monstrous head. Later in his life he would meet people who claimed to understand the language of the wind as it whispered through the trees, who saw omens in the entrails pulled from still-warm lambs, interpreted the future by studying the murfles and mottlements that grew upon men’s skin. Perhaps if they’d been there at the very start, attendant at Philbert’s birth, they might have foreseen what would happen, maybe had the nous to stop it before it all kicked off. But only Frau Kranz was there with a screaming mother, a drink-sodden father, and the doctor scratching his yellow fingernail on Philbert’s taupe.

© Clio Gray

An extract from ‘The Horse Changer’

I

VIRTUOUS TEMPERAMENT

Tuscany: 49 BC

I was sixteen when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon and rode into Italy at the head of Legio XIII. I knew several of the young men in Tuscany who joined his auxiliaries and begged my father’s permission to enlist as well. He refused.

I was old enough, or so I thought, but my father possessed a farmer’s slow reckoning of time. He said I would be of more use to Caesar if I finished my education. I protested that Caesar needed me now, but my father assured me a man like Caesar would always have another battle waiting.

In the three years that followed, Caesar chased the senate out of Italy, routed the legions of Pompey Magnus in Spain and Greece, secured Egypt and sailed to Pontus on the Black Sea, where he defeated an enemy force on the very day he arrived, uttering in the aftermath of that battle the immortal words, ‘I came, I saw, I conquered.’ Then, when the last of the senate’s forces rallied in Numidia, Caesar sailed his wearied legions to Africa and, after a series of desperate battles, brought our great Civil War to its conclusion.

In the history of Rome, there had never been three more glorious years of war, or any general the equal of Julius Caesar. And all the while I sat in Tuscany adding summons and learning to parse Greek sentences.

Rome: 46 BC

When word came of Caesar’s victory in Africa, my wise father kissed my head and sent me to Rome with his blessing. I was nineteen. My eyes were good in those days, my feet swift, my hands strong. I had a heart brimming with ambition. Like a few thousand other young men of

my stripe, I had learned from my early childhood onwards to fight with a sword and hunt with a spear. I could box and wrestle with some skill and even had modest talents in archery. As for the art of horsemanship, I was unrivalled in all of Tuscany.

I was handsome in my youth, taller than most, with powerful shoulders and dusty brown locks. At seventy years of age, I still have broad shoulders and most of my height; the beautiful locks, however, have gone the way of all that is mortal. Judah, my secretary, smirks as I dictate this. It is always the same with young men: they can imagine any fate for themselves except old age and baldness. I was no different.

In Rome, I spent each morning for nearly a week in the vestibule of the house of Cornelius Dolabella. I had never met Dolabella, but my father enjoyed a long friendship with his great uncle, who was one of the lords of our province and the grand patriarch of the Cornelii. He had therefore instructed me to approach Dolabella before speaking to any other patrician. This seemed good advice. Dolabella, as everyone knew, was then a rising star in Caesar’s party, which happened to be the only viable political faction left in Rome. Dolabella was twenty-eight years old; in the old days that would have made him too young for command and certainly too young for a position of any importance in the government. In the world Julius Caesar had fashioned, Dolabella was a general of the legions. In fact, he had already been promised a consulship in another year or two.

To my thinking, no man could match Caesar’s accomplishments, and even with all my ambition I never imagined myself overtaking his glory, not if I had three lifetimes. But I thought I could hope for what Dolabella had accomplished. I decided all I had to do was observe his manner and conduct myself exactly as he did. Of course, I came to this dubious conclusion before I had ever set eyes on the man.

© Craig Smith

An extract from ‘Imperatrix’

67 A.D.

Sparta

‘It is an honour that she’s been chosen!’ His voice was muffled by the wall of her bedroom, but Lysandra could hear the anger in it.

‘She is my child, Arion!’ Her mother sounded fraught with tears.

‘She is my child too, Kassandra. And it is not the Spartan way to go against the will of the ephors, let alone the gods themselves. Your tears are shameful! This is an honour,’ he said again as though trying to convince himself. ‘And you have always known this day was coming.’

Lysandra could not understand why they were arguing. Ever since she could remember, her parents had told her that she was more special than the other girls with whom she played. She had been chosen at birth by the Goddess Athene to be her priestess – a fact that the goddess herself had confirmed many times in her dreams. And this, the eve of her seventh birthday, marked the day before she would have to leave home and serve in the great temple on the acropolis.

Her parents continued to argue in the gynaikon – the women’s room – next to her own. This was her mother’s private abode and it was odd that her father was trespassing there. Still, Lysandra supposed, it was an important day for them too and all she wanted was for them to be proud of her. She rolled out of bed, rubbing her eyes and opened her door, padding across the floor to her mother’s room. ‘I cannot sleep,’ she announced as she walked in causing her parents to stop in mid-flow.

‘Get back to bed!’ they ordered in unison – as was the way of parents.

‘I cannot sleep,’ she said again. ‘You are making a noise – and you told me that I had to go to bed early because tomorrow is a big day and I needed to be strong and not cry. How can I sleep if you are going to keep me awake by shouting next door?’ Her gaze challenged them both and she saw the ice-coloured eyes of her father soften and the skin around them crinkle.

He laughed then. ‘It has always been the way of Spartan women to upbraid their men! Would you carry on that tradition, Lysandra?’ he asked crouching down and opening his arms to her.

She walked to him and put her arms around his neck. ‘Rub your beard on my face!’ she said. She loved the rough, scratchy feeling of it. Her mother got to her feet and joined them, putting arms around them both. ‘Do not cry, mother,’ Lysandra said. ‘I want to go to the temple.’

Her mother just kissed her over and over again. Eventually she said, ‘I know. But we will miss you.’

Lysandra squirmed out of her father’s grip and transferred herself to her mother’s arms. ‘I will miss you too, but when I come home I will be grown up and have lots of stories to tell you. And I will have my grown-up teeth.’ This was important: having grown-up teeth was proof that one was indeed an adult.

‘You see, Kassandra,’ her father said. ‘The child has no fear of this and we should have none either. Now it is late . . .’

‘Can I not stay up with you?’ Lysandra hedged. She was awake anyway and it would now be impossible to sleep. ‘Or at least play in my room?’

Her mother placed her down on the floor and kissed her again.

‘It is late,’ she repeated her father’s words. ‘You must get to bed.’

‘But you said you would miss me!’ Lysandra challenged, teasing her mother’s long, coal-coloured hair. Parents always said one thing and then told her to do something else, which she felt was entirely unfair.

‘And I will.’ She put Lysandra down and tickled her under the chin, making her giggle. ‘But, still – it is way past your bedtime.’

‘But . . .’

‘Bed!’ they both said at once, pointing at the door. Lysandra tutted. ‘All right,’ she sighed and turned, stamping just a little so they would know that she was displeased. She was special, she thought to herself – she should be allowed to stay up late. As she climbed into her cot she determined that she would stay awake anyway and eavesdrop on the rest of the conversation.

She strained to hear what they were saying, but they were now making a point of speaking quietly and then, quite suddenly, she closed her eyes and knew no more.

***

The dawn was grey and cold and misty rain drifted from the sky, the sort that you could hardly see yet somehow seemed wetter than normal rain. Lysandra and her parents stood by the gate of their home, watching the lone rider approach. All three were soaked through, both Lysandra’s and her mother’s long black hair plastered to their heads, her father’s beard sodden and dripping.

Her mother gripped her hand squeezing tight and Lysandra glanced up at her and gave her a smile. She could see the tears on her cheeks despite the rain and there was a small part of her that was embarrassed by this. She was instantly ashamed of this thought and squeezed her mother’s hand back.

Slowly the rider descended into the small valley that surrounded the house like a bowl and now Lysandra could see that she wore the long, red cloak of a Spartan priestess, her head encased in a red-crested helmet that covered her entire face – it had a thick nosepiece

and flared cheek guards – Athene herself wore similar and soldiers in the old days used to wear them too. It looked most impressive.

Finally, the rider drew up to them. ‘Greetings Kassandra,’ she spoke to her mother first as was the Spartan way. ‘Arion,’ she inclined her head. ‘And you,’ the helmet tilted towards her, ‘must be Lysandra. I am Halkyone.’

‘Greetings, Halkyone.’ Lysandra stepped forward.

‘What is in your satchel?’ The priestess gestured at the small bag Lysandra had slung over her shoulder.

Lysandra hesitated, fearing the worst. ‘Some toys,’ she replied. ‘A writing tablet and some fruit.’

‘You will have no need of those things,’ Halkyone confirmed Lysandra’s fears. ‘Bid your parents farewell. Be quick about it.’ Abruptly she turned her horse’s head and walked him away, affording them some privacy.

Feeling somewhat forlorn at the loss of her toys, Lysandra handed the bag to her mother who started to cry anew: she crouched down and embraced her as did her father. Ashamed, Lysandra found herself crying too.

© Russell Whitfield

An extract from ‘Nell and the Girls’

Prologue: March 19

Tom came home with five identical square boxes.

‘Now then you three, line up!’

He called out, ‘Nell, come in here a minute, we ’re going to try our gasmasks on!’ Out of the boxes came the most horrible, grotesque apparitions, straight out of Jeanne’s worst nightmares. She was stiff with terror. Tom, Nell and her sisters tried theirs on. Tom, wearing the fearsome mask, brought his face right down to Jeanne’s level.

‘Now, come on Jeannot, be reasonable. Don’t be a silly girl!’ His voice came out of the mask, thin and muffled, and making the most awful sound when he took his breath in, just like Sandy next door when his asthma was playing him up.

Jeanne sobbed, frightened. ‘No, no . . . I can’t. I’m scared . . . I won’t be able to breathe.’

Tom was angry now. ‘Come on, don’t be stupid! You can see we ’re all wearing them and we can all breathe.’ Panic set in. Jeanne gave full vent to her hysteria. She opened her mouth wide. ‘Wa-a-a-gh!’

Tom lunged towards her, her way of escape into the hall cut off by hands trying to grab hold of her. There was only one thing for it – quick! – behind the piano. As luck would have it, the piano had been placed at an angle across the corner of the room. She squeezed in and curled herself up into a very tight ball. Tom could not get hold of her, either from the side or from the top. Her sisters, Marie and Irene, giggled eerily somewhere deep inside their gasmasks.

Tom took off his mask and threw it to the ground. ‘Oh, I give up. That child’s becoming impossible, Nell.’ As though it was Nell’s fault.

Jeanne stayed curled up in her haven behind the piano, quietly sobbing to herself until it was safe to come out.

 

1890 – 1940

 Tom

William ‘Bill’ Simpson Sarginson and his friend Willie Peacock left Penrith, Cumberland, in the early 1890s to seek their fortunes. They were both tailors at a time when British materials and tailoring were much sought after.

Bill was soon employed as First Cutter by the prestigious House of Worth in Paris. He married Jeanne Marie- Francoise Tirefort, a giletiere (waistcoat maker) and they had two children, Marguerite ‘Maggie ’, born in 1894, and Tom, born in 1896.

When Tom was baptised, the Catholic priest refused to name him Tom as it was not a saint’s name but said that Thomas would do. Bill insisted that he wanted the child named Tom after his uncle back in Penrith. The priest agreed, but only if the boy also had another name, that of a saint. Bill and Jeanne thought quickly, and so the boy was named Tom Paul, after the acceptable name of a saint. Bill had Tom registered as a British citizen at the British Consulate in Paris.

The family lived in a flat in central Paris: 22, rue Cler in the shadow of Les Invalides. Bill had a workshop where he had a full-scale model of a horse, as he specialised in ladies’ riding habits en amazone – meaning side-saddle, to ride in the Bois de Boulogne. The model enabled him to drape the habit to his satisfaction and the children were allowed to ride on the horse when they visited occasionally. On one of their visits they met one of Bill’s clients, a Belgian princess who entertained the children by letting her jewel-encrusted pet scarab beetle run up and down the mantelpiece much to their delight.

While in Paris, young Tom was taken to see Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. What a treat that was for a boy, he was most struck by the Whirling Dervishes, one on each corner of the showground, who, he said, never stopped spinning for the whole four hours. He also saw La Goulue, the dancer depicted dancing on Toulouse-Lautrec’s famous posters of the Moulin Rouge. She had become known as the ‘Queen of Paris’ but, by the time Tom saw her exhibited in a lion’s cage in a circus show, she was old and well past her glory days.

When the children were in their early teens, Bill was promoted to manager of Old England, an establishment promoting British tailoring in Brussels, and the whole family moved there. They lived in rue de l’Arbre Beni, Ixelles, a suburb of Brussels.

Maggie was apprenticed to a leading Belgian milliner and was to make the rosettes for the wedding bonnet of the Belgian Princess Marie-Jose who married the Italian Crown Prince.

Bill had advised Tom to go into Electricity. ‘That’s where the future is, my boy.’ And so, in 1912, Tom was apprenticed to a Swiss firm in Brussels, Appareillage Gardy, learning about high and low tension switchgear.

When the Germans invaded Belgium in 1914, Tom and Bill were arrested and taken to the Ecole Militaire together with other British subjects at the end of August 1914. Bill, observing the comings and goings of crowds of people, all seeking help or information of some sort or other, said to Tom, ‘Look, I think we can escape. Just follow me, don’t look right nor left.’ And that’s exactly what they did. They threaded their way through the crowd looking neither right nor left, and found themselves back in the street and free.

They couldn’t go home and so stayed with kind friends: Bill at one house and Tom at another. They met Jeanne and Maggie, who were still free, at church on Sundays or in the park to exchange news and washing. Jeanne and Maggie were repatriated to England soon after by the Americans who were not yet in the war.

© Jeanne Gask

 

 

An extract from ‘Wanna Cook?’

Screen Shot 2015-08-16 at 17.20.44

“I prefer to see [chemistry] as the study of change . . . that’s all

of life, right? It’s the constant, it’s the cycle. It’s solution — dissolution,

just over and over and over. It is growth, then decay,

then — transformation! It is fascinating, really.” — Walter White

We meet Walter White, Jesse Pinkman, and Walt’s family. Walt is poleaxed by some tragic news. With nothing to lose, Walt decides to try to make one big score, and damn the consequences. For that, however, he needs the help of Jesse Pinkman, a former student turned loser meth cook and drug dealer.

From the moment you see those khakis float down out of a perfectly blue desert sky, you know that you’re watching a show like nothing else on television. The hard beauty and stillness of the American Southwest is shattered by a wildly careening RV driven by a pasty white guy with a developing paunch wearing only a gas mask and tighty-whities.

What the hell?

Like all pilots, this one is primarily exposition, but unlike most, the exposition is beautifully handled as the simple background of Walter’s life. The use of a long flashback as the body of the episode works well, in no small part due to Bryan Cranston’s brilliant performance in the opening, which gives us a Walter White so obviously, desperately out of his element that we immediately wonder how this guy wound up pantsless in the desert and apparently determined to commit suicide-by-cop. After the opening credits, the audience is taken on an intimate tour of Walt’s life. Again, Cranston sells it perfectly. The viewer is presented with a middle-aged man facing the back half of his life from the perspective of an early brilliance and promise that has somehow imploded into a barely-making-ends-meet existence as a high school chemistry teacher. He has to work a lousy second job to support his pregnant wife and disabled teenage son and still can’t afford to buy a water heater.

Executive producer and series creator Vince Gilligan, along with the cast and crew (Gilligan & Co.), take the audience through this day in the life of Walt, and it’s just one little humiliation after another. The only time Walt’s eyes sparkle in the first half of the episode is when he is giving his introductory lecture to his chemistry class. Here Walt transcends his lowermiddle-class life in an almost poetic outpouring of passion for this incredible science. Of course, even that brief joy is crushed by the arrogant insolence of the archetypal high school jackass who stays just far enough inside the line that Walt can’t do a damn thing about him. So this is Walt and his life, as sad sack as you can get, with no real prospects of improvement, a brother-in-law who thinks he’s a wuss, and a wife who doesn’t even pay attention during birthday sex.

Until everything changes.

The sociologist and criminologist Lonnie Athens would likely classify Walt’s cancer diagnosis as the beginning of a “dramatic self change,” brought on by something so traumatic that a person’s self — the very thoughts, ideas, and ways of understanding and interacting with the world — is shattered, or “fragmented,” and in order to survive, the person must begin to replace that old self, those old ideas, with an entirely new worldview. (Athens and his theories are discussed much more fully in the previous What’s Cooking essay, but since we warned you not to read that if you don’t want to risk spoilage, the basic — and spoiler-free — parts are mentioned here.) Breaking Bad gives us this fragmentation beautifully. Note how from the viewer’s perspective Walt is upside down as he is moved into the MRI machine, a motif smoothly repeated in the next scene with Walt’s reflection in the top of the doctor’s desk. Most discombobulating of all, however, is the consultation with the doctor. At first totally voiceless behind the tinnitus-like ambient soundtrack and faceless except for his chin and lips, the doctor and the news he is imparting are made unreal, out of place, and alien. As for Walt, in an exquisite touch of emotional realism, all he can focus on is the mustard stain on the doctor’s lab coat. How many of us, confronted with such tragic news, have likewise found our attention focused, randomly, illogically, on some similar mundanity of life?

It is from this shattered self that Walt begins to operate and things that would have been completely out of the question for pre-cancer Walt are now actual possibilities — things like finding a big score before he dies by making and selling pure crystal meth. Remember that Walt is a truly brilliant chemist, and knows full well what crystal meth is and what it does to people who use it. He may not know exactly what he’s getting into, but he knows what he is doing.

Enter Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul, best known previously for his role on Big Love), a skinny white-boy gangster wannabe who, under the name “Cap’n Cook,” makes a living cooking and selling meth. He’s also an ex-student of Walt’s, and after being recognized by his former teacher during a drug bust, Walt has all the leverage he needs to coerce Jesse into helping him. Why does he need him? Because, as Walt says, “you know the business, and I know the chemistry.” Symbolizing just how far beyond his old life Walt is moving, he and Jesse park their battered RV/meth lab in the desert outside of Albuquerque, far from the city and any signs of human life. All that is there is a rough dirt road and a “cow house” in the distance. The desert is a place without memory, a place outside of things, where secrets can be kept, and meth can be cooked. This is where Walt lives now.

It is in this desert space that Walt becomes a killer, albeit in self-defense. Ironically, the one thing that Walt views as holding the keys to the secret of life — chemistry — becomes the means to end lives. Walt, a father, teacher, and an integral part of an extended family — in other words, an agent of life and growth — has now become a meth cook, using chemical weapons to kill his enemies. Walter White has become an agent of death.

The transformation is just beginning, but already Skyler (Anna Gunn, previously known for her roles on The Practice and Deadwood) is having some trouble recognizing her husband: “Walt? Is that you?”

© Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz

Laura Purcell kickstarts her author tour

Laura PicLaura Purcell started her author tour last weekend with a successful visit to Waterstones in Bury St Edmunds.

Laura is promoting her latest novel, Mistress of the Court, which tells the story of two remarkable women at the centre of George II’s reign.

“Laura Purcell is a wonderful storyteller, and Mistress of the Court a fabulous Georgian read!”

Lucinda Brant, NY Times bestselling author of Georgian romances and mysteries

Her first novel in the series, Queen of Bedlam, was shortlisted for Best Historical Romance 2014 and was Editor’s Pick, in Historical Novels Review.

If you didn’t get chance to see Laura over the weekend then not to worry as she’ll be continuing her tour next weekend.

Here are her remaining tour dates:

Saturday 15th August from 12 till 1 at Colchester Waterstones

Saturday 29th August from 11:30 till 1 at Chelmsford Waterstones

Saturday 3rd October from 11 till 1 at Lowestoft Waterstones

Summer Reading

MagExcellent to see two of Myrmidon’s latest releases in this month’s issue of Book Time: a free magazine from Bertrams that is distributed to indie bookshops throughout the UK.

Both The Horse Changer and Mistress of the Court are picked as some of this year’s hottest  summer reads. If you like your historical fiction then you can’t go wrong with either of these two enthralling and well-researched novels.

 

Tan Twan Eng: What Malaysia means to me

Twan IMG_2492-03Tan Twan Eng, author of The Gift of Rain and The Garden of Evening Mists, appears in the Malaysian edition of Elle magazine (August 2015).

Five acclaimed writers share with Elle readers just exactly what Malaysia means to them. For Twan, it was the small things in life that he remembers with clarity. The kindness of his mother, and the gratefulness of those less fortunate than himself, come across in this short piece of reminiscence.

‘… perhaps, every day all over KL, all over our country, people are doing such similar acts of unsolicited kindnesses, these small things, for complete strangers.’ 

If you’d like to read the full piece from Elle then please click here.

 

How history informs fiction

tigerhuntThe Japanese character in this picture is typical of many Japanese in Malaya before the surprise Japanese invasion like the characters Aritomo and Endo in Tan Twan Eng’s books The Garden of Evening Mists and The Gift of Rain – performing all manner of seemingly innocuous roles while secretly spying for their country.
This was one of the factors leading to the rapid sweep of Japanese forces down through the jungles and plantations of the peninsula and the swift capture of Singapore.
The Malaya campaign and its ferocity is captured in the forthcoming illustrated autobiography from Myrmidon: And the Dawn Came Up Like Thunder, a republished work by war artist and prisoner of war, the late Leo Rawlings. This revised edition contains over 160 illustrations, many of which are published in full colour for the first time.
For more information about this book please click here. Or to pre-order your copy, please click here.