The start of the novel introduces each character. This excerpt reproduces the opening 2-3 pages for each of them.
A city, a soldier
Sunrise is brief in the tropics. As at sea, it comes on in an instant, or seems to, without a prelude; it arrives disguised and wrapped as another, without the blazing force it will exert later. In a moment the new day’s light is not much more than hint on the horizon, the air is light and cool and without body, as though all its weight had been lost or given up from the previous day, but in the turn of a head, fresh light will be rising across the line of the earth, and the sky will be flecked with colour. The light is once grey and then – in just a moment – the sky is effulgent with pink radiance, with an arc of pale orange around it, and the heat is already in the air, it is felt coming on, rousing, almost awakening. Inevitably with the new light, the steam suffuses and suffocates the ebbing cool freshness of night.
There are a group of soldiers. Asleep all of them, drunk and snoring, wheezing; humans in the semi state of sleep and semi-conscious of the city they are in. It has been their objective, their purpose, for as long as any of them have lived. It is dawn and even while asleep and refusing to wake, they can sense the day beginning. The city is quiet, whatever noise there is has no other part, it is alone and single and unorchestrated. The whirring and clatter of bicycles merges with the few engines in the streets, their sound brushes against the buildings and wakes the sleepy people leaning over their balconies.
The men turn uncomfortably, slowly and stiffly, on the hard polished floor; there are too many of them for the narrow space, crammed together, arms reach out to comrades, friends, a discarded bundle of limbs and loose shirts.
Yellow orange pearl white emerges into not much more than a mottled spray, forming into portions of sky and with the colour the defunctive night is past. In the early morning the air is sweet, without heat, and cool, but only for an hour or so – then is it is hot again. It is the type of heat that sears the skin; that drains the body of its power and seems to wring the liquid out of a person. The heat stirs the birds, insects, reptiles, and restores the roads, concrete and bricks with burning intensity.
One man, one soldier these past five years, was sunken so deep into sleep he was lost to the world. He was asleep; drunk, on the wooden floorboards, where he fell the night before, and curled his legs into his body, as if to stay warm, even with the humidity still high, still damp. He lay there, calm.
The night before was a party, a revolutionary party to end twenty five years of struggle: a great revolutionary victory that began with the collapse of the enemy, and the storming of the president’s palace and the parliament. It has all passed as a delirious and riotous carnival; with guns and tanks firing into the air now that all the enemy have fled: are dead or captured; and there were men running around in the street like boys firing in the air, screaming and yelling in ecstasy, like girls, at having lived, having seen what they had done, what had been fulfilled, but knowing that such suffering had endured too. There are many corpses to count, to remember, buckets of tears and grief have been paid thousands of times to win the victory.
The pain of the past was not present last night, only rowdy joy.
Beside him, the soldier, were twenty, thirty men, huddled together on a carved wooden veranda that once belonged to the now vanquished. They are unlikely victors, boys and small young men, yet battle hardened and cruel, with their automatic weapons which they know intimately. In the rancid grey light of morning, unprotected, asleep, they are not intimidating.
He lay still; the nostrils flared on each breath, his hands rested on his chest, peaceful on the hardwood floor, under a long veranda of the former colonial masters. Small fires cooking in the streets nearby send smoke and food odors over the gates to the where the soldiers are sleeping; the aroma of tamarind and fish sauce imbibes the air with a sweet salty tang, one that is comforting, of home.
Men sniff the air, taste it, and lick their lips in their drowsiness; they imagine food with their empty stomachs as they have lived on rice and dried fish for weeks. The taste is stale in their mouths. They might have quarrelled but not so close to victory.
A plane, a mother
The aircraft was almost filled to capacity. From her place Nastasiya Vladimirivna Leshchenko could see heads in all the rows, left to right, and it looked to her that the plane was full. She settled into her window seat (and asked herself if she could really sit in it for another hour, and not ten or more hours as it seemed cramped, constrained) and contemplated the view, such as it was from her window: clouds and sky, the blueness stretched for miles to a distant point.
The horizon was distinct, as if drawn in indigo between the land and the sky, just like mascara, or eyeliner; the type of makeup she wore as a young woman that accentuated the size of the eyes and focused attention on the pupils. Out beyond that point she knew was space, the infinite, it almost frightened her, that there was anything so vast and unknowable, the cold and endless space of all eternity, the place of God, up there in the heavens, and that seemed true and right to her, at the border of the world, in a plane she was nearer to God. There would be guidance and hope.
Nastasiya Vladimirivna was nervous, not with flying which she had done before, but her mind roamed about and looked for things to occupy it, distract it as best it could. The flight did not worry her, it would just be tedious: that is what she said to herself. She had been on an aeroplane several times, on holiday to the Black Sea and once to Paris for a week, but she had never flown for more than three hours. The whole journey was over quite quickly and there were things to keep her attention: the rules of the aircraft, and the stewards marching up and down in their uniforms looking quite important and the bundles of things they carried, the headsets and magazines and drinks and then wearing their practiced smiles when someone asked for something. Those tiny details occupied her. And when they brought lunch or a snack and the crew carried trays and the passengers opened the table on the seat in front them and that meant having something to do. It was all over in a few hours and then she had arrived at place and went to find a taxi.
She was not sure she could sit still for the flight to America, in all, ten hours, it seemed impossible and that added to her nerves; she asked herself if they would permit her to walk around, not that she needed the exercise, she was content sitting, but she had to have control, to choose what she wanted to do and when. At this time every passenger was in their seats, their coops, tight they were and without enough length for the legs to stretch fully, passive, just waiting to be fed and entertained to pass the long boring hours. Nastasiya almost resented the enforcement.
The man next to her was tall, he looked uncomfortable already early into the flight, with a belly, about her age and he wore a T-shirt under his blue striped shirt. His elbow was present that is Nastasiya was aware of it being there and having to avoid it. But he didn’t smell; he was quiet and behaved politely, private. He had said ‘hello’ and that was it, he read and plugged the headphones into his ears, like the teens do on the trains at home and played games on his phone. He acted as if he had done this journey more than once. Nastasiya did ask him, to pass the time, and to learn information that might be useful: he replied in a casual way that he had been on the flight ‘a few times in the last year’ in the tone someone says when they take a commuter train each evening. For all that he might have been intrusive or worse, with straying hands, Nastasiya was grateful. Even so it would have been pleasant to have a good conversation with someone and talk about things, maybe make a new friend, a person to meet with when the flight was over.
These were not her thoughts; they belonged to someone who did not feel her true self. It was the anxiety that gave rise to her agitation, as if she would leave the plane if she could. Nastasiya was going to America at last, which should have been exhilarating; she felt she had experienced it dozens of times on TV and in movies. She was excited, and anxious in equal measure. In her mind’s eye she went through, for the nth time, all the things she would see: the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, Broadway…and do: eat pizza and go to Coney Island and go shopping in 5th Avenue, and see a show, but she only had a few days and she wanted to pack it all in, to make it memorable, to take as much as she could in the time she had, to make it unforgettable and to have souvenirs: the statues, and snow bubbles and toys, all the things tourists buy so readily in their gullibility to consume, pretty things for her friends in Kyiv to share in her trip through the souvenirs.
A car, a man
“:that was the weather, or maybe it wasn’t!, so you decide and tell us in the competition next year, and so we are just creeping crawling along together on the first minutes or so of our journey speaking to you! Yes, in excello, should it be, inhilo? Do you live in Surrey? or do you live in Norfolk?, or Maidenhead?, do you live in Hampshire? going up and down and then I’ll tell you why; oh yes Yorkshire I said-”
He turned the radio down; while he liked the show, sometimes it was banal, just for children, for adolescents.
It was 7.15 am, the fog was dense and the radio called it ‘freezing’, but they liked to exaggerate when they can, it makes them important, most of all, to themselves; in this case it was freezing fog, dangerous, though Piers didn’t care too much for the definition. He was driving his Rover saloon at seventy miles an hour and he knew he was driving too fast. Other cars and trucks appeared in a second from the thick wash of cloud, then disappeared, swallowed up, into the white maw of nothingness. The beams of the vehicle lights burned dark yellow in the fog, the lights bounced between the particles of the clouds; and formed an ethereal swirling show, like an aurora borealis on the tarmac, an ice pageant without dancers, but on rubber. He leant forward and turned the radio up again:
“Dorothy Greenwood; and that’s an expression in Yorkshire. And she says I get pilchards on toast for my husband, oh yah!..But it works for my husband: anyway she said, dear oh dear, she says. And I say con-grat-youuuu-lati-ons to you, Dorothy, and to Mr Greenwood of course,”
The danger excited Piers. He wanted to drive faster but something told him he would be dead; there could be no margin for error, it was certain. It was why he drove so fast anyway. He hoped somehow that everything might be taken from him, from his gorgeous and easy life, all of it wiped away in a second, and then, perhaps, in his faulty perception, it might cohere into a more sensible and interesting life, once it had been taken; or driven headlong into white clouds. But on the road, in the morning, with all the commuter traffic there was a real fear in him which held him back on the accelerator. It was the mechanism that made it impossible to stop breathing at will.
“ – now the point is: wait for it, wait for it, the song that, is, was, oh never mind about all that! Here’s a memory to take with you, which will make you very grateful anyway…quelle artistry, tout á fait you say oh you must be! And I was asked to sit there, oh hello! You must be: I am, happy to meet you again! “
It was off now for good, the radio, just a prattling fool; it wasn’t clever; he made noises and people’s own lack of imagination completed his work, if it could be called that, with a sheen of Woolworth’s wit, he was stealing other people’s time.
His car was alone just rushing through the fog alone with the sound of the road now that the radio was silent. Piers wanted to push down on the accelerator. The body refused: it would go on despite any mad craving to die.
Only last week he read in the paper of a woman who had smoked six cigarettes by a train line on which she was found by the police. She had been undecided and had smoked to consider the why and how of her predicament. Piers was not like that, he had no real intention of ending his life; he was bored and indifferent to it in fact, he sought a thrill, a way to feel something, to renew his sensations, to be ecstatic again. Perhaps it was to recapture the feeling of being a child and doing something as simple and new as jump in the air and not be sure you could land again without being hurt. Yes, it was exactly like that.
The woman by the side of the track was not like Piers. The police found six neatly crushed cigarettes; fresh with lipstick on the filters (the newspapers did not say what hue or type of lipstick which seemed an oversight as they will often state brands of clothes a person wore to place them in a social stratum): six cigarettes take about forty minutes to smoke in haste and agitation. The last being the one that sealed it for her: convinced her.
He eased off the accelerator. The sensation of knowing he might die by suicide when judged after the event and based on his irresponsible driving behavior only added to his excitement. Then knowing in himself, as on a slab, as a body, cold inert all done as if he had erased his own time before. But Piers did not really believe that. Piers was thrilled and his muscles tightened, he understood that he was excited by what might happen and what he could do to avert it, by his own power and by his skills to control the car, to react to the looming shapes in the fog, but he did not want to certify his end fatalistically.
©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2015. All Rights Reserved.