The Bone Clocksby David Mitchell
The New York Times bestseller by the author of Cloud Atlas | Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize | Named One of the Top Ten Fiction Books of the Year by Time, Entertainment Weekly, and O: The Oprah Magazine | A New York Times Notable Book | An American Library Association Notable Book |/i>/b>/i>/i>/i>/i>… See more details below
The New York Times bestseller by the author of Cloud Atlas | Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize | Named One of the Top Ten Fiction Books of the Year by Time, Entertainment Weekly, and O: The Oprah Magazine | A New York Times Notable Book | An American Library Association Notable Book | Shortlisted for a World Fantasy Award
Named to more than 20 year-end best of lists, including
NPR | San Francisco Chronicle | The Atlantic | The Guardian | Slate | BuzzFeed
“With The Bone Clocks, [David] Mitchell rises to meet and match the legacy of Cloud Atlas.”—Los Angeles Times
Following a terrible fight with her mother over her boyfriend, fifteen-year-old Holly Sykes slams the door on her family and her old life. But Holly is no typical teenage runaway: A sensitive child once contacted by voices she knew only as “the radio people,” Holly is a lightning rod for psychic phenomena. Now, as she wanders deeper into the English countryside, visions and coincidences reorder her reality until they assume the aura of a nightmare brought to life.
For Holly has caught the attention of a cabal of dangerous mystics—and their enemies. But her lost weekend is merely the prelude to a shocking disappearance that leaves her family irrevocably scarred. This unsolved mystery will echo through every decade of Holly’s life, affecting all the people Holly loves—even the ones who are not yet born.
A Cambridge scholarship boy grooming himself for wealth and influence, a conflicted father who feels alive only while reporting on the war in Iraq, a middle-aged writer mourning his exile from the bestseller list—all have a part to play in this surreal, invisible war on the margins of our world. From the medieval Swiss Alps to the nineteenth-century Australian bush, from a hotel in Shanghai to a Manhattan townhouse in the near future, their stories come together in moments of everyday grace and extraordinary wonder.
Rich with character and realms of possibility, The Bone Clocks is a kaleidoscopic novel that begs to be taken apart and put back together by a writer The Washington Post calls “the novelist who’s been showing us the future of fiction.”
An elegant conjurer of interconnected tales, a genre-bending daredevil, and a master prose stylist, David Mitchell has become one of the leading literary voices of his generation. His hypnotic new novel, The Bone Clocks, crackles with invention and wit and sheer storytelling pleasure—it is fiction at its most spellbinding.
Praise for The Bone Clocks
“One of the most entertaining and thrilling novels I’ve read in a long time.”—Meg Wolitzer, NPR
“[Mitchell] writes with a furious intensity and slapped-awake vitality, with a delight in language and all the rabbit holes of experience.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Intensely compelling . . . fantastically witty . . . offers up a rich selection of domestic realism, gothic fantasy and apocalyptic speculation.”—The Washington Post
“[A] time-traveling, culture-crossing, genre-bending marvel of a novel.”—O: The Oprah Magazine
“Great fun . . . a tour de force . . . [Mitchell] channels his narrators with vivid expertise.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“Mitchell is one of the most electric writers alive.”—The Boston Globe
Is The Bone Clocks the most ambitious novel ever written, or just the most Mitchell-esque? We begin in the punk years with a teenage Talking Heads–obsessed runaway from Gravesend, England, named Holly Sykes. She becomes a pawn in a spiritual war between the mysterious "Radio People" and the benevolent Horologists, led by the body-shifting immortal Marinus. Many more characters and places soon find themselves worked into Marinus's "Script" across the book's six sections: there's Hugo Lamb, a cunning, amoral Cambridge student spending Christmas 1991 in Switzerland, where he encounters an older Holly tending bar; then it's the height of the Bush/Blair years, and our narrator is Holly's husband, Edmund Brubeck, a war reporter dispatched to Baghdad. Another flash-forward lands us in the present day, where the middling novelist Crispin Hershey weathers a succession of literary feuds, becomes confidante of a New Agey Holly and her daughter, then has his own unsettling encounter with the Radio People. In the penultimate section, Marinus reveals the nature of the Script—the secret conflict lurking just beneath mortal affairs—and how Holly may be the key to a resolution whose repercussions won't be known until 2043, when the aged Holly rides out a curiously sedate end-time in rural Ireland. From gritty realism to far-out fantasy, each section has its own charm and surprises. With its wayward thoughts, chance meetings, and attention to detail, Mitchell's (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet) novel is a thing of beauty. (Sept.)
“Astonishing . . . No one, clearly, has ever told [David] Mitchell that the novel is dead. He writes with a furious intensity and slapped-awake vitality, with a delight in language and all the rabbit holes of experience. . . . In his sixth novel, he’s brought together the time-capsule density of his eyes-wide-open adventure in traditional realism with the death-defying ambitions of Cloud Atlasuntil all borders between pubby England and the machinations of the undead begin to blur. . . . Not many novelists could take on plausible Aboriginal speech, imagine a world after climate change has ravaged it and wonder whether whales suffer from unrequited love. . . . Very few [writers] excite the reader about both the visceral world and the visionary one as Mitchell does.”—The New York Times Book Review (Editor’s Choice)
“Intensely compelling . . . fantastically witty . . . offers up a rich selection of domestic realism, gothic fantasy and apocalyptic speculation.”—The Washington Post
“Sprawling yet disciplined, drunk on life but ever cognizant of its brevity and preciousness, this time-traveling, culture-crossing, genre-bending marvel of a novel by the highly regarded author of Cloud Atlas utterly beguiles.”—O: The Oprah Magazine
“Great fun . . . a tour de force . . . [Mitchell] channels his narrators with vivid expertise.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“Mitchell is one of the most electric writers alive. To open a Mitchell book is to set forth on an adventure. . . . In his latest novel, The Bone Clocks, Mitchell has spun his most far-flung tale yet. . . . Strange and magical.”—The Boston Globe
“Magical . . . [The Bone Clocks] perfectly illustrates the idea that we’re all the heroes of our own lives as well as single cogs in a much larger and more beautiful mechanism. [Grade:] A”—Entertainment Weekly
“Transportingly great . . . If David Mitchell isn’t the most talented novelist of his generation, is there any doubt that he is the most multi-talented? He is, at his best, a superior writer to Jonathan Franzen, a better storyteller than Michael Chabon, more wickedly clever than Jennifer Egan, nearly as fluent as Junot Díaz in multiple dialects, and as gifted as Alice Munro. . . . The Bone Clocks affords its readers the singular gift of reading—the wish to stay put and to be nowhere else but here.”—The Atlantic
“Mitchell’s mesmerizing saga is evidence of the power of story to transport us, and even to stop time entirely.”—Vanity Fair
“[A] literary marvel . . . What we value defines us, The Bone Clocks tells us. Sometimes it’s life. Sometimes it’s love. It’s definitely this book.”—The Miami Herald
“Mitchell’s wit, imagination and gorgeous prose make this a page-turner.”—People
“Mind-bendingly ambitious . . . The force of [Mitchell’s] storytelling makes The Bone Clocks a joy.”—Time
“A tour de force of the imagination, rewarding the attentive reader with both the intricate richness of its plot and the beauty of its language.”—The Plain Dealer
“Told with the skill and nuance of a gifted ventriloquist.”—USA Today
“Mitchell rises to meet and match the legacy of Cloud Atlas.”—Los Angeles Times
“Reading a David Mitchell novel is a little like wandering through a multiplex during that September sweet spot when the best summer blockbusters are screened alongside autumn’s more serious fare. The Bone Clocks is no exception. Mitchell’s generous imagination saturates every sentence, character, and setting to create a story as thrilling in its language as in its plot. It’s my favorite novel I’ve read this year, and the only one I’ve already reread.”—Anthony Marra
“Great story, great words, all good.”—Stephen King
“A hell of a great read . . . wild, funny, terrifying . . . a slipstream masterpiece all its own . . . Mitchell is a genre-bending, time-leaping, world-traveling, puzzle-making, literary magician, and The Bone Clocks is one of his best books.”—Esquire
“Mitchell is a superb storyteller. . . . One of the reasons he is such a popular and critically lauded writer is that he combines both the giddy, freewheeling ceaselessness of the pure storyteller with the grounded realism of the humanist. There’s something for everyone, traditionalist or postmodernist, realist or fantasist.”—The New Yorker
“Relentlessly brilliant . . . [The Bone Clocks contains] depth and darkness, bravely concealed with all the wit and sleight of hand and ventriloquistic verbiage and tale-telling bravura of which Mitchell is a master.”—Ursula K. Le Guin, The Guardian
“You could call Mitchell a global writer, I suppose, but that does not quite capture what he is doing. It is closer to say that he is a pangaeic writer, a supercontinental writer.”—New York
“With The Bone Clocks [Mitchell] has brought off his most sinewy, fine and full book to date, a Möbius strip–tripping great novel that will reward bleary-eyed rereading until he writes his next one.”—Financial Times
“Dazzling . . . Mitchell’s heavy arsenal of talents is showcased in these pages: his symphonic imagination; his ventriloquist’s ability to channel the voices of myriad characters from different time zones and cultures; his intuitive understanding of children and knack for capturing their solemnity and humor; and his ear for language—its rhythms, sounds and inflections.”—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“As you might expect from a David Mitchell novel, [The Bone Clocks is] big, ambitious, and pretty. But it’s very much the story of one woman: Holly Sykes. Her tiny human life is the thread that holds the various stories of The Bone Clocks together, and ultimately it is what gives the book a deep sense of meaning, and its lasting joys and sorrows.”—The Millions
“[The Bone Clocks] might just become the 1984 of the climate change movement. It dramatizes the consequences of our improvident modern economy in the way George Orwell’s novel awakened people to the ‘Big Brother’ mentality of Soviet communism.”—David Ignatius, The Washington Post
“[The Bone Clocks] enthralls, soars, and crackles.”—The Daily Beast
“Mitchell is back and as genre-bendy as ever. Describing the breadth of his latest epic as ‘sprawling’ wouldn’t quite do it justice.”—The Huffington Post
“Deeply meaningful . . . The Bone Clocks has everything you might expect to find in a David Mitchell novel: Great characters in settings far-flung over space and time, all tied together by ambitious ideas and gorgeous writing.”—BuzzFeed
“Mitchell may be the greatest novelist in the English language currently in his prime.”—The A.V. Club
“A fascinating and moving book about time, technology and even the ‘State of the World.’”—The Dallas Morning News
“Mitchell is a brilliant literary mesmerist. . . . He writes with scintillating verve and abundance. . . . [Mitchell’s is a] joyful, consoling world.”—The Telegraph
“A fantastic, perilous journey over continents and decades. Fans of Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas will find this equally ambitious and mind-bending.”—Marie Claire
“[A] beautiful explosion of adventurous ideas . . . As [Mitchell’s] oeuvre develops, he seems to be getting cleverer, braver and delightfully madder.”—The Times
“Fantastical, ambitious, bold and exuberant.”—The Observer
“A sweeping epic . . . that, like Cloud Atlas, spans the ages and tinkers with the hidden gears of human history.”—GQ
“A cautionary metaphysical thriller that grounds its ambition in its heroine’s human charm.”—Vogue
In his breathtaking, audacious, stampedingly beautiful latest, Mitchell (Cloud Atlas) uses the battle between evil soul decanters and good Horologists, who are masterminded by the wise, powerful, body-shifting Marinus, to tell a much larger story. It's a story that embraces the life of Holly Sykes, from a bad boyfriend moment in the Talking Heads era, discovering that her brother has gone missing, running from home, witnessing the first bloody clash between good and evil when people who take her in are murdered, then recognizing her psychic powers and continuing the run to a snowbound resort in the Alps. There, she encounters sly Hugo, an amoral lout aspiring to the upper crust who redeems himself somewhat by discovering that he loves her. Holly goes on to marry war reporter Ed, who refuses to acknowledge Holly's connection to the beyond; wins fame writing a book about her experiences, leading to some wonderfully rendered satire about the writer's world; and finally plays her part in the final battle between the ethereal forces that have been tracking her all along. (Then the narrative moves to war and ecological crash in the 2040s; bad stuff never stops.) This really isn't a book about Holly, though, but about the variety of fantastically rendered worlds we move through as her story unfoldswhich is to say our world, past, present, and looming future, brought to us through a fantasy underpinning that juices up the narrative but isn't its heart. Mitchell's not doing genre but asking us ever-ticking bone clocks to stop being so comfortable with how we measure ourselves and our world: “Beware of asking people to question what's real and what isn't. They may reach conclusions you didn't see coming.”
Verdict Quite a lot of book and not for easy-reading fans, but it's brilliant. [See Prepub Alert, 5/19/14.]Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
(c) Copyright 2014. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Mitchell’s latest could have been called The Rime of the Ancient Marinus—the “youthful ancient Marinus,” that is. Another exacting, challenging and deeply rewarding novel from logophile and time-travel master Mitchell (Cloud Atlas, 2004, etc.).As this long (but not too long) tale opens, we’re in the familiar territory of Mitchell’s Black Swan Green (2006)—Thatcher’s England, that is. A few dozen pages in, and Mitchell has subverted all that. At first it’s 1984, and Holly Sykes, a 15-year-old suburban runaway, is just beginning to suss out that it’s a scary, weird place, if with no shortage of goodwilled protectors. She wants nothing but to get away: “The Thames is riffled and muddy blue today, and I walk and walk and walk away from Gravesend towards the Kent marshes and before I know it, it’s 11:30 and the town’s a little model of itself, a long way behind me.” Farther down the road, Holly has her first inkling of a strange world in which “Horologists” bound up with one Yu Leon Marinus and, well, sort-of-neo-Cathars are having it out, invited into Holly’s reality thanks to a tear in her psychic fabric. Are they real? As one strange inhabitant of a “daymare” asks, “But why would two dying, fleeing incorporeals blunder their way to you, Holly Sykes?” Why indeed? The next 600 pages explain why in a course that moves back and forth among places (Iceland, Switzerland, Iraq, New York), times and states of reality: Holly finds modest success in midlife even as we bone clocks tick our way down to a society of her old age that will remind readers of the world of Sloosha’s Crossin’ from Cloud Atlas: The oil supply has dried up, the poles are melting, gangs roam the land, and the old days are a long way behind us. “We live on,” says an ever unreliable narrator by way of resigned closing, “as long as there are people to live on in.”If Thatcher’s 1984 is bleak, then get a load of what awaits us in 2030. Speculative, lyrical and unrelentingly dark—trademark Mitchell, in other words.
- Random House Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt
I fling open my bedroom curtains, and there’s the thirsty sky and the wide river full of ships and boats and stuff, but I’m already thinking of Vinny’s chocolaty eyes, shampoo down Vinny’s back, beads of sweat on Vinny’s shoulders, and Vinny’s sly laugh, and by now my heart’s going mental and, God, I wish I was waking up at Vinny’s place in Peacock Street and not in my own stupid bedroom. Last night, the words just said themselves, “Christ, I really love you, Vin,” and Vinny puffed out a cloud of smoke and did this Prince Charles voice, “One must say, one’s frightfully partial to spending time with you too, Holly Sykes,” and I nearly weed myself laughing, though I was a bit narked he didn’t say “I love you too” back. If I’m honest. Still, boyfriends act goofy to hide stuff, any magazine’ll tell you. Wish I could phone him right now. Wish they’d invent phones you can speak to anyone anywhere anytime on. He’ll be riding his Norton to work in Rochester right now, in his leather jacket with led zep spelled out in silver studs. Come September, when I turn sixteen, he’ll take me out on his Norton.
Someone slams a cupboard door, below.
Mam. No one else’d dare slam a door like that.
Suppose she’s found out? says a twisted voice.
No. We’ve been too careful, me and Vinny.
She’s menopausal, is Mam. That’ll be it.
Talking Heads’ Fear of Music is on my record player, so I lower the stylus. Vinny bought me this LP, the second Saturday we met at Magic Bus Records. It’s an amazing record. I like “Heaven” and “Memories Can’t Wait” but there’s not a weak track on it. Vinny’s been to New York and actually saw Talking Heads, live. His mate Dan was on security and got Vinny backstage after the gig, and he hung out with David Byrne and the band. If he goes back next year, he’s taking me. I get dressed, finding each love bite and wishing I could go to Vinny’s tonight, but he’s meeting a bunch of mates in Dover. Men hate it when women act jealous, so I pretend not to be. My best friend Stella’s gone to London to hunt for secondhand clothes at Camden Market. Mam says I’m still too young to go to London without an adult so Stella took Ali Jessop instead. My biggest thrill today’ll be hoovering the bar to earn my three pounds’ pocket money. Whoopy-doo. Then I’ve got next week’s exams to revise for. But for two pins I’d hand in blank papers and tell school where to shove Pythagoras triangles and Lord of the Flies and their life cycles of worms. I might, too.
Yeah. I might just do that.
Down in the kitchen, the atmosphere’s like Antarctica. “Morning,” I say, but only Jacko looks up from the window-seat where he’s drawing. Sharon’s through in the lounge part, watching a cartoon. Dad’s downstairs in the hallway, talking with the delivery guy—the truck from the brewery’s grumbling away in front of the pub. Mam’s chopping cooking apples into cubes, giving me the silent treatment. I’m supposed to say, “What’s wrong, Mam, what have I done?” but sod that for a game of soldiers. Obviously she noticed I was back late last night, but I’ll let her raise the topic. I pour some milk over my Weetabix and take it to the table. Mam clangs the lid onto the pan and comes over. “Right. What have you got to say for yourself?”
“Good morning to you too, Mam. Another hot day.”
“What have you got to say for yourself, young lady?”
If in doubt, act innocent. “ ’Bout what exactly?”
Her eyes go all snaky. “What time did you get home?”
“Okay, okay, so I was a bit late, sorry.”
“Two hours isn’t ‘a bit late.’ Where were you?”
I munch my Weetabix. “Stella’s. Lost track of time.”
“Well, that’s peculiar, now, it really is. At ten o’clock I phoned Stella’s mam to find out where the hell you were, and guess what? You’d left before eight. So who’s the liar here, Holly? You or her?”
Shit. “After leaving Stella’s, I went for a walk.”
“And where did your walk take you to?”
I sharpen each word. “Along the river, all right?”
“Upstream or downstream, was it, this little walk?”
I let a silence go by. “What diff’rence does it make?”
There’re some cartoon explosions on the telly. Mam tells my sister, “Turn that thing off and shut the door behind you, Sharon.”
“That’s not fair! Holly’s the one getting told off.”
“Now, Sharon. And you too, Jacko, I want—” But Jacko’s already vanished. When Sharon’s left, Mam takes up the attack again: “All alone, were you, on your ‘walk’?”
Why this nasty feeling she’s setting me up? “Yeah.”
“How far d’you get on your ‘walk,’ then, all alone?”
“What—you want miles or kilometers?”
“Well, perhaps your little walk took you up Peacock Street, to a certain someone called Vincent Costello?” The kitchen sort of swirls, and through the window, on the Essex shore of the river, a tiny stick-man’s lifting his bike off the ferry. “Lost for words all of a sudden? Let me jog your memory: ten o’clock last night, closing the blinds, front window, wearing a T-shirt and not a lot else.”
Yes, I did go downstairs to get Vinny a lager. Yes, I did lower the blind in the front room. Yes, someone did walk by. Relax, I’d told myself. What’s the chances of one stranger recognizing me? Mam’s expecting me to crumple, but I don’t. “You’re wasted as a barmaid, Mam. You ought to be handling supergrasses for MI5.”
Mam gives me the Kath Sykes Filthy Glare. “How old is he?”
Now I fold my arms. “None of your business.”
Mam’s eyes go slitty. “Twenty-four, apparently.”
“If you already know, why’re you asking?”
“Because a twenty-four-year-old man interfering with a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl is illegal. He could go to prison.”
“I’ll be sixteen in September, and I reckon the Kent police have bigger fish to fry. I’m old enough to make up my own mind about my relationships.”
Mam lights one of her Marlboro Reds. I’d kill for one. “When I tell your father, he’ll flay this Costello fella alive.”
Sure, Dad has to persuade piss-artists off the premises from time to time, all landlords do, but he’s not the flaying-anyone-alive type. “Brendan was fifteen when he was going out with Mandy Fry, and if you think they were just holding hands on the swings, they weren’t. Don’t recall him getting the ‘You could go to prison’ treatment.”
She spells it out like I’m a moron: “It’s—different—for—boys.”
I do an I-do-not-believe-what-I’m-hearing snort.
“I’m telling you now, Holly, you’ll be seeing this . . . car salesman again over my dead body.”
“Actually, Mam, I’ll bloody see who I bloody well want!”
“New rules.” Mam stubs out her fag. “I’m taking you to school and fetching you back in the van. You don’t set foot outside unless it’s with me, your father, Brendan, or Ruth. If I glimpse this cradle snatcher anywhere near here, I’ll be on the blower to the police to press charges—yes, I will, so help me God. And—and—I’ll call his employer and let them know that he’s seducing underage schoolgirls.”
Big fat seconds ooze by while all of this sinks in.
My tear ducts start twitching but there’s no way I’m giving Mrs. Hitler the pleasure. “This isn’t Saudi Arabia! You can’t lock me up!”
“Live under our roof, you obey our rules. When I was your age—”
“Yeah yeah yeah, you had twenty brothers and thirty sisters and forty grandparents and fifty acres of spuds to dig ’cause that was how life was in Auld feckin’ Oireland but this is England, Mam, England! And it’s the 1980s and if life was so feckin’ glorious in that West Cork bog why did you feckin’ bother even coming to—”
Whack! Smack over the left side of my face.
We look at each other: me trembling with shock and Mam angrier than I’ve ever seen her, and—I reckon—knowing she’s just broken something that’ll never be mended. I leave the room without a word, as if I’ve just won an argument.
I only cry a bit, and it’s shocked crying, not boo-hoo crying, and when I’m done I go to the mirror. My eyes’re a bit puffy, but a bit of eyeliner soon sorts that out . . . Dab of lippy, bit of blusher . . . Sorted. The girl in the mirror’s a woman, with her cropped black hair, her Quadrophenia T-shirt, her black jeans. “I’ve got news for you,” she says. “You’re moving in with Vinny today.” I start listing the reasons why I can’t, and stop. “Yes,” I agree, giddy and calm at once. I’m leaving school, as well. As from now. The summer holidays’ll be here before the truancy officer can fart, and I’m sixteen in September, and then it’s stuff you, Windmill Hill Comprehensive. Do I dare?
I dare. Pack, then. Pack what? Whatever’ll fit into my big duffel bag. Underwear, bras, T-shirts, my bomber jacket; makeup case and the Oxo tin with my bracelets and necklaces in. Toothbrush and a handful of tampons—my period’s a bit late so it should start, like, any hour now. Money. I count up £13.85 saved in notes and coins. I’ve £80 more in my TSB bankbook. It’s not like Vinny’ll charge me rent, and I’ll look for a job next week. Babysitting, working in the market, waitressing: There’s loads of ways to earn a few quid. What about my LPs? I can’t lug the whole collection over to Peacock Street now, and Mam’s quite capable of dumping them at the Oxfam shop out of spite, so I just take Fear of Music, wrapping it carefully in my bomber jacket and putting it into my bag so it won’t get bent. I hide the others under the loose floorboard, just for now, but as I’m putting the carpet back, I get the fright of my life: Jacko’s watching me from the doorway. He’s still in his Thunderbirds pajamas and slippers.
I tell him, “Mister, you just gave me a heart attack.”
“You’re going.” Jacko’s got this not-quite-here voice.
“Just between us, yes, I am. But not far, don’t worry.”
“I’ve made you a souvenir, to remember me by.” Jacko hands me a circle of cardboard—a flattened Dairylea cheese box with a maze drawn on. He’s mad about mazes, is Jacko; it’s all these Dungeons & Dragonsy books him and Sharon read. The one Jacko’s drawn’s actually dead simple by his standards, made of eight or nine circles inside each other. “Take it,” he tells me. “It’s diabolical.”
“It doesn’t look all that bad to me.”
“ ‘Diabolical’ means ‘satanic,’ sis.”
“Why’s your maze so satanic, then?”
“The Dusk follows you as you go through it. If it touches you, you cease to exist, so one wrong turn down a dead end, that’s the end of you. That’s why you have to learn the labyrinth by heart.”
Christ, I don’t half have a freaky little brother. “Right. Well, thanks, Jacko. Look, I’ve got a few things to—”
Jacko holds my wrist. “Learn this labyrinth, Holly. Indulge your freaky little brother. Please.”
That jolts me a bit. “Mister, you’re acting all weird.”
“Promise me you’ll memorize the path through it, so if you ever needed to, you could navigate it in the darkness. Please.”
My friends’ little brothers are all into Scalextric or BMX or Top Trumps—why do I get one who does this and says words like “navigate” and “diabolical”? Christ only knows how he’ll survive in Gravesend if he’s gay. I muss his hair. “Okay, I promise to learn your maze off by heart.” Then Jacko hugs me, which is weird ’cause Jacko’s not a huggy kid. “Hey, I’m not going far . . . You’ll understand when you’re older, and—”
“You’re moving in with your boyfriend.”
By now I shouldn’t be surprised. “Yeah.”
“Take care of yourself, Holly.”
“Vinny’s nice. Once Mam’s got used to the idea, we’ll see each other—I mean, we still saw Brendan after he married Ruth, yeah?”
But Jacko just puts the cardboard lid with his maze on deep into my duffel bag, gives me one last look, and disappears.
Mam appears with a basket of bar rugs on the first-floor landing, as if she wasn’t lying in wait. “I’m not bluffing. You’re grounded. Back upstairs. You’ve got exams next week. Time you knuckled down and got some proper revision done.”
I grip the banister. “ ‘Our roof, our rules,’ you said. Fine. I don’t want your rules, or your roof, or you hitting me whenever you lose your rag. You’d not put up with that. Would you?”
Mam’s face sort of twitches, and if she says the right thing now, we’ll negotiate. But no, she just takes in my duffel bag and sneers like she can’t believe how stupid I am. “You had a brain, once.”
So I carry on down the stairs to the ground floor.
Above me, her voice tightens. “What about school?”
“You go, then, if school’s so important!”
“I never had the bloody chance, Holly! I’ve always had the pub to run, and you and Brendan and Sharon and Jacko to feed, clothe, and send to school so you won’t have to spend your life mopping out toilets and emptying ashtrays and knackering your back and never having an early night.”
Water off a duck’s back. I carry on downstairs.
“But go on, then. Go. Learn the hard way. I’ll give you three days before Romeo turfs you out. It’s not a girl’s glittering personality that men’re interested in, Holly. It never bloody is.”
I ignore her. From the hallway I see Sharon behind the bar by the fruit juice shelves. She’s helping Dad do the restocking, but I can see she heard. I give her a little wave and she gives me one back, nervous. Echoing up from the cellar trapdoor is Dad’s voice, crooning “Ferry ’Cross the Mersey.” Better leave him out of it. In front of Mam, he’ll side with her. In front of the regulars, it’ll be “It takes a bigger idiot than me to step between the pecking hens” and they’ll all nod and mumble, “Right enough there, Dave.” Plus I’d rather not be in the room when he finds out ’bout Vinny. Not that I’m ashamed, I’d just rather not be there. Newky’s snoozing in his basket. “You’re the smelliest dog in Kent,” I tell him to stop myself crying, “you old fleabag.” I pat his neck, unbolt the side door, and step into Marlow Alley. Behind me, the door goes clunk.
West Street’s too bright and too dark, like a TV with the contrast on the blink, so I put on my sunglasses and they turn the world all dreamish and vivider and more real. My throat aches and I’m shaking a bit. Nobody’s running after me from the pub. Good. A cement truck trundles by and its fumy gust makes the conker tree sway a bit and rustle. Breathe in warm tarmac, fried spuds, and week-old rubbish spilling out of the bins—the dustmen are on strike again.
Lots of little darting birds’re twirly-whirlying like the tin-whistlers on strings kids get at birthdays, or used to, and a gang of boys’re playing Kick the Can in the park round the church at Crooked Lane. Get him! Behind the tree! Set me free! Kids. Stella says older men make better lovers; with boys our age, she says, the ice cream melts once the cone’s in your hand. Only Stella knows ’bout Vinny—she was there that first Saturday in the Magic Bus—but she can keep a secret. When she was teaching me to smoke and I kept puking, she didn’t laugh or tell anyone, and she’s told me everything I need to know ’bout boys. Stella’s the coolest girl in our year at school, easy.
Crooked Lane veers up from the river, and from there I turn up Queen Street, where I’m nearly mown down by Julie Walcott pushing her pram. Her baby’s bawling its head off and she looks knackered. She left school when she got pregnant. Me and Vinny are dead careful, and we only had sex once without a condom, our first time, and it’s a scientific fact that virgins can’t get pregnant. Stella told me.
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