“… a demon Spirit, weaving beautiful nests of tight prose, hatching spectacular nightmares out of love, guilt, remorse and unreliable memory. The flights of his fiction are dazzling and dangerous.”
“I loved it. His portraits of everyday loneliness are brilliant. Altogether I thought it one of the finest and most haunting modern spectral novels I’ve read.”
“Incendiary stuff… marks Williams out as a writer of rare if warped imagination.”
“…beautiful prose in this brooding and mysterious tale… A first class novel.”
Peter Crowther, Interzone
“Lean,compelling prose marks this out as a thriller of real distinction.”
“‘Conrad Williams’ debut novel casts an irresistible spell. [It is] obsessive, menacing and full of bizarre imagery. Along with its narrative surprises, remorseless invention and astonishing emotional range, it offers a host of more traditional fictional pleasures: acute perceptions of character, naturalistic dialogue and some fine evocations of the fears, desires and cruelties of adolescence… An extraordinary novel: subtle, stylish, witty, dark and visionary.”
Andrew Hedgecock, Time Out Net Books
The man in the gaberdine coat worked the far end of the beach, tucked under the protective shadow of The Battery. His dog lolloped around at his feet until, bored with the ceaseless sweep of his master’s metal detector, he lay down on a rock and watched the seagulls.
I half-heartedly sketched the dog, keeping an eye on the man’s progress. What was he looking for? I must have seen him every time I came anywhere near the beach but I had yet to witness him digging anything up.
‘I think,’ Eve said, dipping her head to lick my ear, ‘the man in the gaberdine coat is a spy.’
‘Oh really,’ I said, turning to kiss her. ‘Who’s he spying on?’
‘You and me. He’s recording this conversation too with an ultra sensitive microphone. Watch.’ She wetted her lips and whispered: ‘Hey, man in the coat, I want to suck you off.’
The man jerked upright and looked in our direction. I laughed, surprised by the coincidence and rested my head against her leg. The anger I’d felt had vanished. It didn’t matter that she hadn’t turned up on time or had left me spinning like a scrap of paper in the wind. It didn’t matter how panicked I’d become. ‘he was here now. That’s what mattered. I looked up at her face, the strong chin and the whorls of fair hair on her jawline. The broad mouth. The pulse in her throat. A blue vein, fine as thread, worming across her temples. I felt whole. I felt nourished.
‘I wish I knew what he was looking for,’ I said, shading, without any great conviction, the dark areas beneath the dog’s body.
‘Come on then,’ Eve said, pushing me away. ‘Let’s find out. Come on.’
I followed her down to the sand where she was trotting towards the figure. The dog stopped panting and watched, its body suddenly becoming more poised, as though scenting prey.
When I caught up with her, she was finishing off a question.’ well known for that then?’ was all I heard.
He shrugged. Guiltily regarding the worn handle of his metal detector, he stuck out a hand and I shook it. The skin was very cold and smooth as soap.
‘David,’ said Eve, ‘this is Grainne Chawney. He’s an archaeologist.’
‘An archaeologist? In Morecambe? What are you expecting to find? Fossilised chip forks? Prehistoric Screwball cartons?’
‘No, he’s looking for bodies.’
‘Fascinating,’ I said, feeling a jolt as I wondered what might be under the sand. It sucked at my feet here, where it was gluey with water. I thought of the photograph Seamus had shown me of Dale Paris, taken just a matter of hours before his death. He had no clue, as he smiled into the lens, of what was to befall him. Or was there some kind of sign after all, some omen that one noticed but thought nothing of? Were dreams different, in the final, breathing sleep? Did animals shy away, smelling death? Dale Paris would be dressed as he was in that photograph still, but he’d be bones now.
‘What’s the range?’ I asked, reaching for the detector, which he passed to me.
‘Not great,’ he said. He had a gentle American accent. ‘Six, maybe eight feet.’
‘Shallow graves,’ I said. ‘I wouldn’t have thought that Morecambe Bay was a tipping site for corpses.’
‘I’m here because of the chapel, really. There’s a lot of stuff emerging in the cliff as the sea erodes it. We found a bone comb last week. Twelfth century.’
‘Jesus, really?’ I said. And then the detector went off. I’d been ranging it around the sand by my feet. ‘It must be one of the eyes in my boot,’ I suggested.
Chawner’s lips spun around the tight O of his mouth.
‘Ooh, exciting,’ said Eve. ‘Let’s dig it up. Could be a fortune.’
‘Could be a barrel of nuclear waste,’ I said, cheerily. Chawney took out a trowel and hacked at the sand. ‘I’ve been up and down this beach for hours,’ he spat, ‘and you come along and hit pay dirt straight off.’
‘Sorry,’ I said, happy to leave him and his rusty old tins in peace.
‘You never know what you’ll find. There could be horses and carts down here. Lots of places in this bay where the sand is unstable. Suck you down quick as you like. I know ah, shit. What’s this?’
He surfaced, sand coating his knees and the cuffs of his shirt. He held a curved black mass in his hand; it was about the same size as his palm. He started scrubbing at it with an old toothbrush from his jacket pocket.
‘Looks like a soap dish,’ Eve said.
‘I’m going to get this back to my room,’ Chawney said. ‘Got some stuff to clean it with there. Want to come? I can show you some of the other things I’ve found.’
I handed his detector back. I was going to decline but Eve was already pulling me after him. His dog, which he introduced as IQ, followed at a distance.
Chawney lived in a flat above the Gingham Cafe, on the seafront road amid dozens of guest houses, cheap markets and amusement arcades. His living room was bare but for a low table covered with audio tapes. Vincent Price reads Edgar Allen Poe, I saw. There was also a box of cheap paperbacks in a corner and a lurching futon, covered with a throw that looked as if it had done some time as a shroud. IQ sensibly ignored it and flopped down by the books. A plastic tray of cress on the windowsill wasn’t up to much. Neither was Chawney, who was looking out at the sea.
‘Would either of you like a drink? I’ve got banana Nesquik or Cup-a-‘oup. Leek that is. With croutons.’
‘Coffee please, doctor,’ said Eve, falling into the futon and trading places with about ten pounds of dust.
‘No coffee, I’m afraid. Ditto tea. I can’t stand the stuff. And it’s professor. But you can call me Grainne.’ He was rotating the artefact in his hands, turning it this way and that in the light. ‘You know, I think I know what this is. Won’t be a mo.’ He stepped through a door and pulled it behind him. The door failed to snick shut and swung back slightly into the living room. Blue and white floor tiles, smeared with grime. The end section of a melamine wall unit. A dried up plant in a pot on the floor.
I heard water rushing into a steel sink.
‘Let’s go, Eve,’ I said. ‘This bloke’s a nutter. He doesn’t like tea.’
Eve pressed a finger to her lips and, glancing once at the kitchen door, hitched up her skirt. ‘he wasn’t wearing any knickers. She yawned wetly at me as she spread her legs. Using the finger she’d hushed me with, she rubbed at herself until she was red and my throat was dry. Even the dog’s ears pricked up.
‘As I thought,’ came Chawney’s voice. ‘I had to give it a bit of a seeing to but it’s come up nice and clean now.’
Eve raised her eyebrows and I brayed laughter. She repositioned her skirt. As Chawney returned to the room, she began sucking the tip of her finger. I found it difficult to sit down.
‘It’s a palate,’ he said. ‘A human one, still attached to part of the jawbone. Over thirty years old. Look, you can see some of the teeth contain fillings.’
‘Shit,’ I said. ”houldn’t that go to the police?’
‘I’m sure it should. But it isn’t going anywhere. I’m having it. Come and have a look at the rest of my stash. Most of this is from Heysham ‘ he’d disappeared into the kitchen again ‘ some pretty rich pickings in Heysham. But you’ve got to watch out for the shit they pump into the sea from that damned power station. You’ll see me in waders most of the time. And a mask. I’m not stupid.’
I followed him into the kitchen. There was an ironing board set up in the corner with a heap of grey clothing on it. He was digging around in a wicker basket, holding up trinkets that I couldn’t identify. ‘Bracelet, bronze. Bone comb I was telling you about. Coins, last century. Pen inscribed: Willy loves Edna. Must be seventy years old at least. Bet I could get it working again.’
‘Shouldn’t all this stuff go to a museum?’ I asked, not really caring one jot because I could now see that the clothing on the ironing board wasn’t clothing after all. It was a great heap of skin, divested of bulk and bone, oily with some kind of moisturising unguent.
‘I’m sure it should. But it isn’t going anywhere. I’m having it,’ he repeated.
I could see the shape of the arm, the hairs standing out on it. The hand was like an empty Marigold. A pale band indicated where a wedding ring had been. The light dimmed. I felt a hot flush at the base of my neck. Neither Eve nor Chawney were speaking. One of the fingers moved. I turned slightly and looked up through a sudden prickle of sweat. Eve was moving silently around the back of Chawney, who had become thinner, as though he was losing his substance to the heat of the room. Pain rippled into the centre of my skull and I retched. I didn’t feel at all well.
‘Okay?’ asked Chawney, his head folding towards me.
Eve appeared through him, as he finally lost his solidity and I lurched towards the door which had somehow become just another section of wall.
‘Watch out!’ Eve yelled, scooping an arm beneath one of my flailing limbs. Somehow I staggered outside without falling over. The sodden air revived me a little as I set off down the promenade, fearful of a return to my own room; it was too much like being in a cell and anyway, despite the cleaning up that had been done, I was certain I could still smell the sour reek of fear and shit whenever I passed Duncan’s door. I heard Eve behind me, and as her hand dropped on my arm there was a squeal of tyres as someone slammed on the brakes. I turned in time to see a small boy nudged slightly by a severely dipping Sierra at the pedestrian crossing. It tipped him over and the bag of aniseed balls he was holding scattered across the road.
‘Shit ‘ I began.
‘He’s all right,’ said Eve, tightening her grip although she hadn’t bothered to look.
I allowed her to steer me back on course and we walked in silence while my body tingled with an unbearable itch. I felt that my surroundings – the people, the buildings, the seagulls – were stamped with some kind of mark, a potential. That at any moment they would reveal their true purpose instead of simply carrying on as they had been for however long their existence had lasted. It felt like the one time I had tried MDMA. Suddenly, the skin of everything around me had seemed transparent. I’d been afraid to look down at the ground in case I saw its hidden secrets.
© Conrad Williams