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By the same author
The Last Family in England
The Dead Fathers Club
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Copyright © Matt Haig, 2008
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
eISBN : 978-1-101-02867-4
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If there is anything that we wish to change in the child, we should first examine it and see whether it is not something that could better be changed in ourselves.
Carl Gustav Jung,
The Development of Personality
But the deep deep tragedies of infancy, as when the child’s hands were unlinked for ever from his mother’s neck, or his lips for ever from his sister’s kisses, these remain lurking below all, and these lurk to the last.
Thomas De Quincey,
‘Suspiria de Profundis: The Palimpsest’
Of course, you know where it begins.
It begins the way life begins, with the sound of screaming.
I was upstairs, at my desk, balancing the books. I recall being in a rather buoyant mood, having sold that afternoon a mid-Victorian drop-leaf table for a most welcome amount. It must have been half past seven. The sky outside the window was particularly beautiful, I remember thinking. One of those glorious May sunsets that crams all the beauty of the day into its dying moments.
Now, where were you? Yes: your bedroom. You were practising your cello, as you had been since Reuben had left to meet his friends at the tennis courts.
At the time I heard it, the scream, I had already lowered my gaze towards the park. I think I must have been looking over at the horse chestnuts, rather than the empty climbing frame, because I hadn’t noticed anyone on East Mount Road. There was some kind of numerical discrepancy I was trying to solve; I can’t remember what precisely.
Oh, I could hold that scene just there. I could write ten thousand words about that sunset, about that park, about the trivial queries of my profit and loss accounts. You see, as I write I am back inside that moment, I am back there in that room, wrapped up warm in that unknowing contentment. For this pen to push that evening on, to get to the moment where the sound of the scream actually meant something, seems a kind of crime. And yet I have to tell you how it was, exactly as I saw it, because this was the end and the start of everything, wasn’t it? So come on, Terence, get on with it, you don’t have all day.
The scream struck me first as a disturbance. An intrusion on the sweet sound of whatever Brahms sonata was floating to me from your bedroom. Then, before I knew why, it caused a kind of pain, a twist in my stomach, as if my body was understanding before my mind.
Simultaneous with the sound of the scream, there were other noises, coming from the same direction. Voices unified in a chant, repeating a two-syllable word or name I couldn’t quite catch. I looked towards the noise and saw the first street lamp stutter into life. Something was hanging from the horizontal section of the pole. A dark blue shape that didn’t immediately make sense, high above the ground.
There were people standing below - boys - and the hanging object and the chanting gained clarity in my mind at the same time.
‘Reuben! Reuben! Reuben!’
I froze. Maybe too much of me was still lost in my account books as, for a second or so, I did nothing except watch.
My son was hanging from a lamp post, using the greatest of strength to risk his life for the sake of entertaining those he thought were friends.
I felt things sharpen and began to move, gaining momentum as I ran across the landing.
Your music stopped.
‘Dad?’ you asked me.
I rushed downstairs and through the shop. My hip knocked into something, a chest, causing one of the figurines to drop and smash.
I crossed the street and ran through the gate. I crossed the park at the pace of a younger self, flying over the leaves and grass and through the deserted play area. All the time I kept him in sight, as if to lose him for a second would cause his grip to weaken. I ran feeling the terror beat in my chest, behind my eyes and in my ears.
He shuffled his hands closer towards the vertical section of the post.
I could see his face now, glowing an unnatural yellow from the lamp. His teeth bared with the strain, his bulging eyes already knowing the insanity of his mistake.
Please, Bryony, understand this: the pain of a child is the pain of a parent. As I ran to your brother I knew I was running to myself.
I stepped on the park wall and jumped down to the pavement, landing badly. I twisted my ankle on the concrete but I fought against it as I ran towards him, as I called his name.
Your brother couldn’t move. His face was twisted in agony. The glare of the light blanched his skin, releasing him of the birth mark he always hated.
I was getting closer now.
‘Reuben!’ I shouted. ‘Reuben!’
He saw me as I pushed my way through his friends. I can still see his face and all the confusion and terror and helplessness it contained. In that moment of recognition, of distraction, the concentration he needed to stay exactly where he was suddenly faltered. I could feel it before it happened, a kind of gloating doom leaking out from the terraced houses. An invisible but all-encompassing evil that stole every last hope.
He fell, fast and heavy.
Within a second his screaming had stopped and he was on the concrete pavement in front of me.
Everything about him seemed so hideous and unnatural as he lay there, like an abandoned puppet. The crooked angles of his legs. The accelerated rhythm of his chest. The shining blood that spilt from his mouth.
‘Get an ambulance,’ I shouted at the crowd of boys who stood there in numb silence. ‘Now!’
In the distance cars sped by on Blossom Street, heading into York or out to the supermarket, immune and unaware.
I crouched down and my hand touched his face and I pleaded with him to stay with me.
I begged him.
And it seemed like some kind of deliberate punishment, the way he died. I could see the decision in his eyes, as the substance of life retreated further and further from his body.
One of the boys, the smallest, vomited on the pavement.
Another - shaven-headed, sharp-eyed - staggered back, away, onto the empty road.
The tallest and most muscular of the group just stood there, looking at me, a shaded face inside a hood. I hated that boy and the brutal indifference of his face. I cursed the god who had made this boy stand there, breathing before me, while Reuben was dying on the pavement. Inside the desperate urgency of that moment I sensed there was something not quite right about that boy, as though he had been pasted onto the scene from another reality.
I picked up one of Reuben’s heavy hands, his left, and saw his palm was still red and indented from holding onto the post. I rubbed it and I kept talking to him, words on top of words, but all the time I could see him retreating from his body, backing away. And then he said something.
‘Don’t go.’ As if it was me who was leaving and not him. They were his last words.
The hand went cold, the night gathered closer and the ambulance came to confirm it was too late for anything to be done.
I remember I saw you across the park.
I remember leaving Reuben’s body on the pavement.
I remember you asked me, ‘Dad, what’s happening?’
I remember saying, ‘Go back, Petal, go back home. Please.’
I remember you asked about the ambulance.
I remember I ignored the question and repeated my demand.
I remember the boy in the hood, staring straight at you.
I remember I became insistent, I remember grabbing your arm and shouting, I remember being harsher with you than I had ever been.
I remember the look on your face and I remember you running back home, to the shop entrance, and the door closing. And the knowledge below the madness that I had betrayed you both.
As you know, for much of my life I have spent my time mending broken things. Repairing clock dials, restoring old chairs, retouching china. Over the years I have become accomplished at removing stains with ammonia, or a dab of white spirit. I can remove scratches from glass. I can simulate different grains of wood. And I can restore a corroded Tudor candlestick with vinegar, half a pint of hot water and a piece of fine wire wool.
To buy a George III mahogany dressing table suffering the scars and strains of two centuries, and then return it to its original glory, once gave me such a thrill. Or equally, to have Mrs Weeks come into the shop and run her informed fingers over a Worcester vase without detecting the cracks, not so long ago filled my soul with happiness.
It gave me a kind of power, I suppose. A means of defeating time. A way of insulating myself against this foul, mouldering age. And I cannot explain to you the desperate pain it gives me to know that I cannot restore our own private past in quite the same way.
Here is something you must understand.
There have been four people in this life I have truly loved, and out of those four, you are the only one remaining. All of the others died of unnatural causes. Son, wife, mother. All three before their time.
You love three people and they die. It hardly warrants a public inquiry, does it? No. How many would you have to love and watch die before people grew suspicious of that love? Five? Ten? A hundred? Three is nothing. A fig. Three is just plain old bad luck, even if it is three-quarters of all you have ever cared for in the world.