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The city is a strange place for Jozef. After living in a Polish village for much of his life, he is struggling to adjust to the tall, grey landscape of apartment living, and his job in a local deli serving french fries and fried chicken to brash, self-assured children makes him feel even more disconnected from the surrounding population. It is only when he encounters TC, a troubled boy running away from school, that Jozef finds a kindred spirit with whom he can share his ...
The city is a strange place for Jozef. After living in a Polish village for much of his life, he is struggling to adjust to the tall, grey landscape of apartment living, and his job in a local deli serving french fries and fried chicken to brash, self-assured children makes him feel even more disconnected from the surrounding population. It is only when he encounters TC, a troubled boy running away from school, that Jozef finds a kindred spirit with whom he can share his fascination with the natural world.
The two are noticed in a small litter-strewn park by a friendly local, the elderly and recently widowed Sophia, who has been attempting to spark an interest in nature in her granddaughter, Daisy. While Sophia sends Daisy letters each week about the growth of the flowers in the park, Jozef attempts to extract, over games of chess, the details of TC's troubled home life-left broken by the departure of the boy's father. Like leaves twisting in the wind, the lives of these four figures are blown together, defying the gravity affecting the world around them. That is, until the pressures of modern life intervene.
"A graceful and poignant debut novel ... Harrison’s great love for nature shines in her beautiful descriptions." — Booklist
ST BARTHOLOMEW'S DAY
THE ROOM WAS square and beige, with posters of lakes and snowy peaks on the walls and a box of old toys in the corner. There were two sofas with ill-fitting blue covers, and a rectangular table, bare except for a box of tissues and with two plastic chairs facing each other across it; two more were stacked in the corner. In the door was a window set with reinforced glass; the only window, in fact, in the whole room. Below the ceiling hung two small cameras with glowing red eyes.
A boy sat on one sofa holding a toy dog like he didn't know what to do with it. It was clear somebody had put it into his hands. Somebody well meaning; but he was ten now, too old for soft toys. He put it gently on the floor by his feet and pushed his hands between his knees. Kept his eyes on it.
On the other sofa was a young woman with large gold earrings and folded arms. She looked towards the boy, but not at him. Her expression, her posture, gave very little away. An older woman sat at the table, sorting through some papers in a folder. She looked up at the boy and at his mother, then put the folder away, down by the side of the table, as though there it might be somehow defused.
'All right then, TC,' she said. 'It says here that's what you like to be called, is that right?'
The boy glanced up at her briefly, then away.
'TC. Now you know you're not in any trouble, don't you? You're not in any trouble at all.'
The boy nodded.
'Good. And you understand I'm not a policewoman?'
Again, he nodded. 'You're the social.'
'I work for social services, yes, that's right. Now, what I want to do today is find out a little bit about your friendship with Mr Lopata – with Jozef. Is that all right?'
'Is he in trouble?'
'Let's not worry about him for now, OK? For now I just want to build up a picture of what life's been like for yourself, OK, TC, and about how you came to know Jozef. Now, I understand that last September, soon after you started Year Five, you started missing school, is that right? Can you tell me why that was?'
It was hard for TC to remember everything that had happened a whole year ago. Such a lot of time had passed. He tried to think back to last September, before his mum started seeing Jamal, before he found the secret garden. Before he met Jozef.
TC had taken a book into school on the first day of Year Five. It was one of only two books he owned – although the other one was a secret.
This one he had stolen from a plastic crate outside a charity shop during the summer holidays. It was called The Supernatural and was full of grainy black-and-white photographs showing pots and pans sent lying through old-fashioned kitchens by poltergeists, cheery adventurers waving from the steps of planes that had later disappeared into thin air and religious statues weeping tears of human blood. Once he got it home he'd found he could not escape from its terrifying pull; that night it was as if all the terrors on its pages might burst out of it and fly howling around the room.
Since then he had allowed himself to look at it only in daylight, and he always made sure to close the covers firmly and hide it away before dark. Nevertheless, when he woke in the night his mind was often drawn back to the lurid pictures and the chilling text; he both wanted to know, and didn't want to know, how the world worked and whether it really was so treacherous.
He took it to school because he'd wanted Year Five to be different. He'd thought the book might bring him kudos of some kind, and pictured himself besieged by curious and admiring children, but as he stood in the playground with it on the first day of term, held mutely open at the most terrifying page, he found it earned him only mockery and jeers. He should have known better, he thought; as if that was ever going to work. Why did he have to keep on trying, why did he have to keep making it worse?
His other book had been bought for him by his father, although you could say he'd stolen that one, too. TC had not seen his dad for nearly three months, not since his mum kicked him out just before his ninth birthday, which wasn't fair. After all the shouting, after the sound of his feet on the echoing stairwell had died away – as it turned out for the last time – TC had watched from his bedroom window as his mum took everything to do with his dad out to the bins far below, even the presents left wrapped and ready for TC's birthday. They were for him — for him; and he knew he would never forgive her.
That was the first time he left the lat at night by himself, creeping down the four lights of stairs with their buzzing, unreliable lights and overcoming untold horrors to reach blindly into the bin's black maw. There was only one present he could reach, and he opened it in secret in his bed that night – not that the secrecy was warranted, looking back, because from what he could tell his mother had hardly been into his room since then anyway.
The book was a guide to tracking wild animals, and since then TC had looked at it every single day. As well as the prints animals' feet left in mud and snow, it showed how to tell if a hazelnut had been nibbled by a squirrel or a mouse, what sorts of animals lived in what kinds of homes, and how to recognise different types of animal droppings. Instantly, TC knew why his dad had chosen it for him: they had watched survival programmes together, and his dad was going to teach him bush-craft. He'd been in the army – well, the Territorials, which was the same thing – and he knew everything about survival. They were going to go camping in the summer, although that would never happen, now.
His dad had chosen well, despite it really being a book for grown-ups. The parts TC didn't understand he pored over endlessly, and by the start of Year Five he knew what a herbivore was, if not the difference between 'your' and 'you're'; and he could roughly describe the distribution of water voles across the country, although he did not yet know where any major cities were on a map.
Not that it counted for anything. The teachers weren't bothered if you knew about stuff like that, and the other kids certainly didn't care; they were all into football and Wii games and stuff. So at lunchtime on that first day back, having understood how it was to be, he did what he had been doing all summer long and simply took himself away: away to the little park where only the magpies scolded him from the trees, away to the common's grassy acres and the friendly oak woods at its margins; away to where he felt less alone. In the weeks without his father those few nondescript city acres – the park by the Plestor Estate, the common and the few godforsaken corners of scrub between the estate and the high road – had become overlaid with the landmarks of all his solitary imaginings, until every tree and fence post and path and thicket was charged with an almost mystical significance. The book had been the key: it showed him a secret world that existed alongside the daily, humdrum one, but that seemed invisible to most people. The birds weren't just things lapping about in the background; they had lives, just like people did: they got married, had families, fought each other and died, and so did the foxes and the squirrels and everything else. And it was happening all the time and all around him, not just in TV programmes, or in Africa or wherever. It was all going on, secretly and without anything to do with people; and TC longed, longed, to belong to it all.
And so, when the school bell rang for the end of lunch on the first day back, he was more than a mile away on the common, high in the branches of his favourite oak. It had a friendly lower branch, then a satisfying scramble to the next level; then a choice: he could either sit with his back against the rough, reassuring trunk, or further out, in the crux of two tortuous branches, where dog walkers would often pass directly below, never suspecting the small boy sitting quietly above them. There, TC had carefully tied one slim twig in a loose knot. One day it would be a proper branch, and only he would know how it had come by its odd shape.
It didn't feel like autumn yet, it still felt like summer. The oak's leaves were still green, although some of the horse chestnuts were starting to turn; TC looked around and tried to imagine the thick canopy down on the ground and all the branches bare, but it didn't seem possible.
He thought about when his dad would come back, and how he could tell him everything he had learned. He would show him the bent grasses and scuffed earth that marked the place where a fox pushed its way under the fence by the station sidings night after night, or the empty, teardrop-shaped nest of a long-tailed tit, painstakingly woven from cobwebs and lichen and hair. Or perhaps by then he would have found his holy grail: an owl pellet, packed with fur and feathers and tiny bones that could be picked out and sorted to show what the owl had eaten. The tracking book said there weren't any owls in the city, but it also said there weren't very many foxes, and that definitely wasn't true. After all, there was a date in it telling when it had been published, and it was back when TC was just a baby, which left lots of time for owls to come. Perhaps one day he would hear one, and follow the sound to its roost, and below the roost would be the dry, regurgitated pellets: little gifts for his father, when he came home.
Apart from the time his mum dialled 999, it was TC's first real brush with the police. Hunger drove him down from the oak but he hadn't thought how it would look, a boy wandering around in uniform on a school day. When the two policemen called him over on Leasow Road he didn't even think to run away.
'How old are you, son?' asked the taller of the two.
'And is that an Elmsford's uniform?'
TC's chest thumped, and his stomach dropped like a stone.
'And why aren't you in school today?'
He didn't have any answers; yet there was something about the man's hand on his shoulder as they steered him towards the high-rise blocks that felt almost like relief.
The coppers didn't like the lift not working. TC had to follow them at their pace up the stairs, their shoes black and ugly on each step, their trousers shiny and ill-fitting as school uniforms. They spoke to one another on the way up as though TC wasn't there.
At the fourth floor they stopped. 'This it, then?' TC wasn't even nervous now, not really bothered about what she might say. Something to get through, that was all. And then he could go to his room and look at his book.
But when she answered the door there was someone standing behind her – a man was standing behind her. TC thought for one heart-thudding moment that it was his father, but that was stupid, this man was taller and darker, different, this man was not his father, not his father at all.
Excerpted from Clay by Melissa Harrison. Copyright © 2013 by Melissa Harrison. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY.
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Posted November 10, 2012