It’s nothing like giving birth. At least, as far as I’m capable of judging, from the second-hand experiences of an interested observer and part-time punchbag (twice).
It’s more like dragging a recalcitrant teenager out of bed on a school day.
Those who write as well as read will know what I mean. AND SOON THE SONG, my second novel, is almost out. It’s at the door holding on to the door-frame and yelling obscenities. As I write, I’m prying its fingers off, one by one.
This book is not a cousin to NORTHMAN, or even a descendant; it’s more a sibling. It addresses many of the themes visited in my first novel, but from a slightly different perspective. It also has a few new themes that are particularly close to my heart and perhaps, my anger. In essence it’s a classic ghost story, but with a few twists. It’s a bit rude, a bit violent and is set in my native Derbyshire, with forays into the US via New York and the Okefenokee Swamp of Georgia.
I’ve posted the first few chapters here, before publication tomorrow, so my friends can have a look first. You might not get a feel for AND SOON THE SONG from these chapters, which, in marketing terms is bad, but I’m lousy at marketing anyway, so I thought I’d write ASTS with the slow-ish build, lots of characters sort of structure I enjoy reading and risk the wrath of readers who prefer more immediacy. Even in this incarnation it’s not as gradual a reveal as I would have liked, but, as writers, we have what we have and life is too short to waste tinkering around the edges.
Anyway, I hope you enjoy the sample and, of course, welcome comments, no matter how derisory.
Apologies for the WordPress formatting. It and MS Word seem to have differences and delving into HTML has never been an ambition. It’s all fine and dandy in the full Kindle edition. Unless the ghost has been at it again.
AND SOON THE SONG
The playful slap of waves against the hull of a small boat is a pleasant sound on a summer day in a flat calm. It is not pleasant in a force ten gale. Neither is it playful.
Six miles off St John’s, on the coast of Newfoundland, Elton Chelford heeled the thirty-two foot yacht ‘Windfall’ into the howling storm and prayed.
That day his gods were not listening.
The wave came from nowhere. It towered forty feet above the boat and smashed down with the force of an angry leviathan, tearing the fibreglass hull in two.
Briefly, Elton saw his wife Marjorie tumble past him in the foaming water as the ‘Windfall’ sank. She seemed to be attached to the yacht and he could see why. Rope from the windlass was wrapped around her neck and she followed the yacht into the depths like a dog on a leash.
Above the thunder of the waves he heard a thin scream.
His thirteen-year-old daughter slid away from him in the swell, rising and falling, her mouth an ‘o’ of distress.
Below him, Marjorie’s face was almost lost in darkness.
“I’m sorry,” he shouted to his daughter and heard her scream once more, before she was lost in the trough of an enormous wave. “I’ll just get your mom, hold on,” he said to himself and had a surprising thought that he had just uttered the last of all the words he was ever going to say.
Only the stern of the yacht was visible now. Taking a deep breath, he dived to the fading yacht, to Marjorie, ever falling under the great, green Atlantic Ocean.
1191: ACRE, THE HOLY LAND
Richard’s red hair flamed in the hot sun, his double-handed sword flashing like a turning salmon against the cloudless sky. Behind him the solid bulk of St Anthony’s Gate rose and around him the bodies of black clad warriors tumbled, arms gone, heads cleaved, as the sword hewed them into the afterlife with righteous passion. Spread for a mile across the field of conflict, beneath the massive walls, the knights of eight Christian nations and their armies drove the enemy back, back to the desert, back to the mountains, into the sea, away from the gates of the recaptured city of Acre.
The stench of the layered dead rose from the battlefield, mixed with the reek of vinegar and urine and Raoul de Courcy drank it in, his own sword beating against the soft flesh of the dark Musulmen in a coruscation of silver and red, adding to the pile of the dead and the dying. Carving a way through the retreating warriors, he was soon at Richard’s side, the king towering over him, the light of killing in his ice blue eyes.
Despite himself, Raoul was, as always, awed in the king’s presence; the man was a giant and his sword the hand of God, or rather the hand of Pope Gregory VIII, but the king’s brother, Prince John, had ordained what must come next, so Raoul slipped the curved and ornate Khanjar dagger into his left hand as he shouted “Coeur de Lion, Coeur de Lion!” and ploughed his sword through the guts of yet another of the horde of Salah-ad-Din. As he twisted the sword from the screaming man, he fell backwards onto Richard, his dagger aimed for the gap between armour and tabard, but Richard, swinging his broadsword through the neck of a grizzled Ayyubid veteran, slipped on a blood streaked shield splattered with greasy intestines and staggered. Raoul’s killing blow met only empty air.
Abruptly, the battle was over and an eerie silence descended on the battlefield, only broken by the flapping of flags, the crackling of bodies in the final stages of consumption by Greek Fire and the diminishing sounds of retreat. Richard lowered his sword, blood pooling under the tip, as the last of the Musulmen scattered from Acre, pursued by a band of Knights Templar led by Grand Master Robert de Sablé. The Templars streamed from the gates of Acre on horseback, pounding the dead and injured to pulp under the hooves of their giant warhorses. The cracking of bones and the strange susurration of bursting flesh was lost, as a thunderous roar went up, like the toppling of a thousand stones, as Richard raised his sword to the men surrounding him, a huge grin spreading across his bearded face.
Raoul slipped away into the crowd of soldiers and moved towards the gates of the city. He was disappointed. Richard’s death promised, at the very least, rich lands in England or Normandy and his sadly bastard branch of the noble and powerful de Courcys – of which he was the only remaining representative – was almost bankrupt and in severe peril of losing their small lands in Derbyshire, England, acquired by Raoul’s ancestor, Armand, in 1066.
A smile crossed his thin, ratlike features as he slipped through the gates against the tide of troops and into shadow. He ran his lips over blackened teeth and his green eyes glittered in the darkness. There would be another chance to do the bidding of his master, John, but for now the captured children of Acre awaited his pleasure.
TOMMY THE BOY, 1971
Tommy’s first memories were of the woman with sparkly glasses. Anything before that was a grey mist.
“He doesn’t understand.”
“You can’t expect…” The woman with the sparkly glasses and watery blue eyes pursed her lips in a thin line and glared down at the boy. “It’s not just for now. You know that, Thomas.”
“Mmm.” Tommy couldn’t look at her dinosaur eyes. He tried to read the reversed sign on the frosted glass door. Social something.
The man with the red nose cleared his throat. “Rosemary, it’s no good telling him this. He’s only six.”
I am, thought Tommy. I’m six, I am.
Glasses sniffed with a thin nose covered in shiny brown marks. “Boys are all the same. No backbone.”
Tommy saw her eyes crinkle cruelly and thought that they should be green like a sea witch, not blue.
“Look, he’s crying, Mr Garvey. See?” Her shoulders moved back in a gesture of righteousness. “Crying.”
Tommy was and didn’t know why. It was just welling up in him like sick, and the tears made her glasses look like big electric lights, like a lighthouse on a rock in the sea, in the dark. Her head swivelled in response to his thought and she bent over him. Her breath smelt of mackerel.
“Be a man, Thomas, you’re not the only one in this particular predicament, you know. If you can’t remember anything, it’s probably not worth remembering.”
“Leave the lad alone, Rosemary,” Rednose interrupted. “It’s hard enough on him, broke both legs for Chr…” He put his arm around Tommy’s shoulders and patted the boy’s striped cotton tee shirt, as if it were a dog that he didn’t know. “It’s all right, old man. You’ll soon settle in, lots of lads your age get…well, lose their parents, you’ll like the Gables.”
Tommy the boy, Tommy the child, Tom the man, squirmed away from Rednose and put his hand in his pocket to touch the silver shilling. The treasure. It was real. It meant something. He glared up at them both, fighting the tears, knowing that tears were what they wanted, what they expected.
Rednose moved to a brown desk and sat on it with a sigh, shaking his head, but Glasses moved back in and frowned at Tommy, her searchlights crackling with coldness. “Don’t you look at me like that, boy. You’re no different…”
“He is,” Rednose interrupted softly, “Oh, yes. His father is a very important…” The man stopped as if he’d swallowed a rock.
Father? Tommy tried to remember but the thought was like a frightened mouse and it made his head hurt. He gripped the treasure more tightly; that was real.
“What’s that he’s got? In his hand.” Glasses pulled Tommy’s hand from his trousers and tried to prise the little fist open.
“It’s mine,” Tommy said, “Not yours.”
“Show me. Please?” Rednose made no move to force him so Tommy opened his hand. The silver shilling gleamed there: the one with the head of the King.
“Give it here.” Glasses held out her hand.
“It’s only an old shilling, Rosemary. It’s probably all he has. Not even legal tender anymore.”
Glasses sniffed. “They’re not allowed money at the orphanage.” But she lowered her hand, and sniffed again.
Tommy could feel the cold fire sweep from her eyes and numb his brain. But he knew and she didn’t.
The warm, frightening familiarity of the messages from the future washed over him and he felt reassured.
“You’re going to die soon,” he said to her and it was only a whisper, “in Africa.”
They put him on the special coach to the orphanage and forgot him.
Five months later, at the precise moment that the number 14 bus hit Rosemary Arless just outside the Fulham Road tube station, she did not think of Tommy. She was, in fact, thinking of the red carnation she had just bought from a flower seller and was so entranced by its redness that she stepped into the road without thought.
Unaccountably, she remembered Tommy when the black bus driver leant over her and she realised that although he was talking she couldn’t hear him, only a distant patter of drums. She tried to clear her nose and there was the exotic odour of limes. Everything was so red and warm. She smiled. Tommy was wrong. It was going to be a good holiday.
TOMMY THE BOY, 1978
Seven years after Rosemary Arless and Rednose sentenced him to the orphanage, the creaky messages were arriving thick and fast for Tommy. Trouble was, most of the time he couldn’t figure out what they were about. It was like watching old TV films with long dead actors in them. And they were all about pain, grief or death. The messages were not happy messages. Someone always had to suffer.
Invariably at the end, when the little puppet humans had run or stamped or screamed across the tumbling images, there was the dark haired girl with the name of a boy, (Chaz? Charles?) her mouth screaming a big ‘O’. She was the only consistency. He wanted so much to help her, to save her, but all he could see was her mouth open wide and the soundless scream.
Today, after finding Stick Jensen industriously beating up a sickly boy called Pimple, Tommy cracked the bully’s nose in a relatively fair fight – except that Tommy used a house brick to counter Stick’s forty pounds weight advantage – and he felt his brain tighten and creak, as if tuning up for the messages.
Inside the recreation room, he leaned against the old oak bookcase in the library, heart pounding, took out a roll-up and felt the headache coming, the one that always came after the door in his head opened; but it was only a twinge and he allowed himself a restrained smile of pleasure.
“One day I’m gonna chew you up Buchanan, you little shite. Strawberry fuckin’ jelly, you.” Stick, flame red hair falling over his acne-damaged face, leant round the door, but didn’t enter. “Strawberry fuckin’ jelly.”
“Not on one leg you’re not.” Tommy said, flicking on his cherished brass Zippo – stolen from one of the posh kids who made short appearances at the orphanage – and lighting up. He could hear Stick thinking, reminiscent of the grind of a Stone Age cart.
“Twat, you are,” Stick said. “Two fuckin’ legs, see?”
Tommy smiled to himself. Stick was spent like a spinner on the pond. All used up. He was a Gables boy, wild until he hit the wall of a displeased Guardian – like old Claybollocks, former Marine and built like a tank – then he was a pussycat.
The rest? Just fucking apes. Tommy liked that expression. It was always the worst thing he could think of, the worst thing to be.
And they were all rubbish after all, himself included: the ones who’d been passed over by the male/female combinations who came to the orphanage behaving as if it were a supermarket. When he was eight he’d hoped, tried to look happy and cheerful, combed his hair neatly, scrubbed until his face hurt, and worn a clean shirt so that someone would take him, so that he could have a mum and dad again; but there was something about him that they didn’t like, something in his eyes that said trouble and they’d go for the ones with blue eyes and blonde hair, not the black haired boy with brown eyes smiling manically like a pre-pubescent anti-Christ.
Then he’d started to hate them. Those people who picked a child like a dog from the pound. It became satisfying to watch some prospective parents take on an angelic little thing when the kid was harder than seasoned oak and thicker than pig shit. Now he was thirteen, the supermarket shoppers didn’t even see him anymore and that made his hatred a comfort.
But despite this dubious comfort, he felt envy as another child was driven away through the gates and when he was alone he would turn the silver shilling over and over in his hands until his chest felt tight and his eyes got stupidly wet. The same questions always, repeated like a tired old song. Why did my mum and dad throw me away? Why can’t I remember their faces? Who are they? Where are they? But when he tried to imagine their faces he felt the trembling edge of the headache approaching, the signal for the doorway in his head to open and it soon became the only thing he feared, tied in with a remembrance of two people whom he knew that he would never, ever, meet.
Poor old Stick and all the other lads were the same. Discarded. Unsatisfactory. Badly made crap. It gave them all a mutual hatred, a commonality, a brotherhood. He switched on the television, sitting down with his back to Stick. His head creaked again.
Not just the leg, but the diamonds too. Poor Stick.
Stick stayed in the door for a minute but Tommy did not look around knowing that most of Stick’s anger was dribbling away. Later, he thought, later. But it came to him that he would never see Stick again.
Tommy heard him leave and for a moment felt a great weight on his chest, a sort of sorrow was how he described it to himself, a sorrow for poor, old, tough Stick. Poor, old, tough, one-legged Stick.
“I’ll look after the dog, Stick,” he murmured and didn’t know what he meant, but he could see it – big, black, with weird eyes, and a funny name.
Some hours later, by the pond in the grounds of the orphanage he watched an old pike, maybe fifteen pounds, circling in the weeds, watched as it snapped a minnow in its jaws with barely a movement of the savage head and he thought of Stick.
Poor, old Stick.
The first part would be soon.
TOM THE MAN, 1982 -90
At seventeen, unqualified and uneducated, the Army was the only place he could go, so he went.
The Third Battalion, Parachute Regiment, was better than the orphanage. In 3 PARA there were no cow faced prospective parents to piss all his confidence away. There were only hard squaddies who didn’t give a toss about the colour of his hair.
They sent him to Ulster where he met Siobhan, a Catholic girl, known what it was to love for the first time and at last thought he’d found the foundations of the family he’d always imagined.
“A man takes care of his woman, Tommy.” She’d said it with pride and he received it with pride.
The Provos killed her because he was a British soldier and there was no longer any pride in that, no point in anything.
Her black hair, like some exotic undersea frond on the stiff hospital linen, told him that everything was pointless. They had sent him home, to England, given him a new job as an instructor and put him on a day release college course. It hadn’t worked. He didn’t give a stuff about the recruits. There was no one to save anymore. She was dead.
So, he returned to active duty with 3 PARA and requested a second tour of Ulster. It had come to him in England that he should die, should make it so and should atone for Siobhan. But he’d failed miserably at that too.
Alone, on a Republican housing estate off the Creggan Road, he’d shot a known Provo sniper, Eamonn Dooley and waited for the man’s pal to cut him down with the AK47 he was carrying, but the pal ran away, with the gun.
Court martialled in 1990 as a political sop to the South, Tom served six months in the glasshouse and was then booted out of the Army with a dishonourable discharge. Dooley became an official Republican hero. Dead heroes: Ireland rotted with them.
And he’d not seen it. No doors opened, no creaking, no images of him leaving the Army in ignominy. The prescience only worked with other people’s lives, not his own. It had worked with Stick.
Poor old Stick.
Every time he thought of Stick he could see diamonds. The first part of his prophecy had proved correct. Blood poisoning after a badly serviced Flymo hover mower lacerated Stick’s leg. They had to cut it off below the knee and he was lucky to be alive.
But there was still the second part. It involved diamonds in some way, but it was unclear how. He saw a picture of an enormous house, almost like a castle or a stately home and Stick was limping across grass to a river with the big, black dog. There was something familiar about the dog – it had run through his dreams often – but, as with the diamonds, he had no inkling of the significance of either. It was like the attempts he’d made to remember anything else at all – besides the ‘O’ of the dark haired girl’s mouth – before Rednose and Glasses had sent him to the Gables. Result? A headache, a blank, a mystery.
Hearthstone. The house is called Hearthstone, silly. It was as if someone (a woman?) murmured in his ear, but as soon as it was said it faded away and the name with it.
Too many mysteries, he thought. There was no mystery about being dead, heroes or not. Dooley’s dead. She’s dead. If they are truly dead, why do they live in me?
She lives in me. Always.
If my mum and dad were here, I’d go home, be a son, do the right things and maybe tell them about her. Who she was. Who she made me be. What we were together.
But I have no mum and dad.
They didn’t want me and it’s too late for all that. Too late to be a man, or a son, or a husband, too late to be anything except a piece of shit.
All too late.
I didn’t see it coming.
All I’ve got now are the headaches.
The blades of the helicopter beat the black air and slid into the Guinness dark night; a toy against an infinite backdrop of grinning stars. Soon, the ululating cadence of violated air had died away and Hearthstone Hall was silent once more.
Inside, away from the lighted butler’s pantry where an old man sat humming, a tangible darkness swept along the corridors, bleeding through the ancient walls, enveloping the cold stone and felt only hunger and need.
After so long away, it was time. Three were close and three were far away.
Softly, it began to sing. First to the man, Marcus, in the helicopter, but he was lost in a mind storm of thoughts and needs of his own and there was no entry, then to the woman, Elyssia, sinking in darkness and joyfully the song entered her, with ease, as it had done so many times before.
She would come. And in her madness she would call the others. The girl, the boy, the dark man and the other one: those necessary. They would have no choice, for they would all hear the song and then the hunger could be assuaged.
Lost to the gaze of God, Hearthstone waited.
Waited for the guests.
Waited for the children.
Alone in the gloom, Elyssia cried black tears of remorse, as she did every night.
All gone now. She’d lost them all. Her two babies and the man for whom she would have given her life. All because of a misunderstanding – a teeny-weeny misunderstanding. It was not fair. She pounded the walls of the room and felt her fists sink into the walls.
“Please turn the light on.” The soft walls, the soft floor and a ceiling that sucked the sound away muffled her voice. “I want you to turn the light on. Now.” But no one came, and the night was so long.
Thomas and Charlotte did not come to see her, and that made her cry, but Marcus had probably told them to ignore her. It was the sort of thing he would do.
“Children, let me out. Daddy is a bad man, an absolute shite, but I can save you from him. Listen, you remember this…” and she sang, her voice muffled in the room: “I dreamed a dream next Tuesday week, beneath the apple trees, I thought my eyes were big pork pies, and my nose was Stilton cheese…” But she couldn’t remember any more of the silly words and anyway the children had gone.
Thomas and Charlotte. Bad children.
Very, very bad children.
I will have to punish them. I will definitely have to punish the other one – the one who ruined my life.
She heard the crooning of the song and for a moment it stopped her gnawing at the thick canvas edge of the doorframe and gave her an overwhelming sense of serenity. From that serenity she remembered what had to be done.
Hearthstone. Marcus, her husband. Her son. Carlos, the dark man. The other one. And sweet little Charlotte. From the memory came purpose.
The Christmas Ball.
She knew she could get out now. After twenty-four years, they trusted her. Trusted her to be sensible and not piss in her pants, kill people or try to escape.
Escape? Not through the front door. Oh no.
They would never, ever let her out, even though the medication was curing her, they said. So, it would have to be the special way. The way they couldn’t stop.
When they turned the lights out she felt under the bed for the piece of sharp plastic she’d broken off the plant pot and fingered the jagged edge.
Therapy, gardening. An interest, gardening.
An escape route, gardening.
It was easy to find the pulsing vein in her throat and then to plunge the plastic into it. She was surprised how painless it was after the initial sharp prick. She moved the plastic around in her throat to enlarge the hole, feeling the warm blood pumping over her hands as if an invisible drummer were co-ordinating the beat.
The cell door seemed thinner now.
She stood, surprised to find that the blood had stopped. There was no more. The dead woman lying on the bed had it all, a poppy on the sheets.
The door was locked, as always, but it was ridiculously easy to just slide through it.
“Children?” She stepped into the corridor. “Children? Are you there? Mummy’s coming home. Right now.”