This Isn't the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like Youby Jon McGregor
The powerful first collection of short stories by Jon McGregor.
From the publication of his first Booker-nominated novel at the age of twenty-six, Jon McGregor's fiction has consistently been defined by lean poetic language, a keen sense of detail, and insightful characterization. Now, after publishing three novels, he's turning his considerable talent toward
The powerful first collection of short stories by Jon McGregor.
From the publication of his first Booker-nominated novel at the age of twenty-six, Jon McGregor's fiction has consistently been defined by lean poetic language, a keen sense of detail, and insightful characterization. Now, after publishing three novels, he's turning his considerable talent toward short fiction. The stories in this beautifully wrought collection explore a specific physical world and the people who inhabit it.
Set among the lowlands and levees, the fens and ditches that mark the spare landscape of eastern England, the stories expose lives where much is buried, much is at risk, and tender moments are hard-won. The narrators of these delicate, dangerous, and sometimes deeply funny stories tell us what they believe to be important-in language inflected with the landscape's own understatement-while the real stories lie in what they unwittingly let slip.
A man builds a tree house by a river in preparation for a coming flood. A boy sets fire to a barn. A pair of itinerant laborers sit by a lake and talk,while fighter-planes fly low overhead and prepare for war. This Isn't the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You is an intricate exploration of isolation, self-discovery, and the impact of place on the human psyche.
Praise for Even the Dogs:
"A rare combination of profound empathy and wonderful writing." -Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
“30 electric tales... This is a book of ominous preludes and chilling aftermaths... McGregor stealthily commands our active engagement, scattering crumbs of data for us to pick through, gumshoe-style.” New York Times Book Review
“Each tale in this slim, elegant book does something most of us wish would happen to us in real life: It stops us in a humdrum moment and reveals how that small, unnoticed sliver of time can illuminate an entire life... Magic.” Oprah.com, Book of the Week
“John McGregor is one of the UK's most fascinating and versatile writers. The fact that most American readers have never heard of him does not speak well of us. Let's all buy his book NOW.” Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story
“These stories by Jon McGregor feel as if they are made half of words and half of the earth. They are elegant, understated, sometimes wry, and yet full of the drama and passion of life.” Matthew Sharpe, author of You Were Wrong
“Jon McGregor's uncanny stories linger long after you have finished them. He quietly inserts distinct, convincing voices into vivid and compelling landscapes. This original, beautiful, and haunting book totally captivated me.” Dana Spiotta, author of Stone Arabia and National Book Award Finalist Eat the Document
“With the depth, range, and quiet restraint of these masterly, truth-bearing stories of blighted hinterland souls, Jon McGregor holds his own among the wisest writers alive.” Gary Lutz, author of Divorcer
“Jon McGregor's stories are strange and lovely masterpieces: painfully authentic, inquisitive rather than confrontational, he has a tremendous ability to disturb the surface of everyday things...Underneath that which is radically quotidian, he captures our unique and unusual selves.” Sarah Hall, author of The Electric Michelangelo
“Jon McGregor's stories are full of unremarkable landscape, destabilizing drama, and people pinned in place by themselves. But they gleam with endearing detail. Depictions of a plain afternoon, an impatient conversation or a menacing gesture swing the reader though hairpin curves, from precarious, to terrifying and finally to okay. His writing is unnerving, unconventional and lovely.” Leanne Shapton, author of Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry
The New York Times Book Review
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This Isn't The Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You: Stories
By Jon McGregor
Bloomsbury PublishingCopyright © 2012 Jon McGregor
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThat Colour
She stood by the window and said, Those trees are turning that beautiful colour again. Is that right, I asked. I was at the back of the house, in the kitchen. I was doing the dishes. The water wasn't hot enough. She said, I don't know what colour you'd call it. These were the trees on the other side of the road she was talking about, across the junction. It's a wonder they do so well where they are, with the traffic. I don't know what they are. Some kind of maple or sycamore, perhaps. This happens every year and she always seems taken by surprise. These years get shorter every year. She said, I could look at them all day, I really could. I rested my hands in the water and I listened to her standing there. Her breathing. She didn't say anything. She kept standing there. I emptied the bowl and refilled it with hot water. The room was cold, and the steam poured out of the water and off the dishes. I could feel it on my face. She said, They're not just red, that's not it, is it now. I rinsed off the frying pan and ran my fingers around it to check for grease. My knuckles were starting to ache again, already. She said, When you close your eyes on a sunny day, it's a bit like that colour. Her voice was very quiet. I stood still and listened. She said, It's hard to describe. A lorry went past and the whole house shook with it and I heard her step away from the window, the way she does. I asked why she was so surprised. I told her it was autumn, it was what happened: the days get shorter, the chlorophyll breaks down, the leaves turn a different colour. I told her she went through this every year. She said, It's just lovely, they're lovely, that's all, you don't have to. I finished the dishes and poured out the water and rinsed the bowl. There was a very red skirt she used to wear, when we were young. She dyed her hair to match it once and some people in the town were moved to comment. Flame-red, she called it then. Perhaps these leaves were like that, the ones she was trying to describe. I dried my hands and went through to the front room and stood beside her. I felt for her hand and held it. I said, But tell me again.
In Winter The Sky
He had something to tell her. He announced this the next day, after the fog had cleared, while the floods still lay over the fields. It looked like a difficult thing for him to say. His hands were shaking. She asked him if it couldn't wait until after she'd done some work, and he said that there was always something else to do, some other reason to wait and to not talk. All right, she said. Fine. Bring the dogs. They gave his father some lunch, and they walked out together along the path beside the drainage canal.
She knew what he wanted to tell her, but she didn't know what he would say.
What she knew about him when she was seventeen: he lived at the very end of the school-bus route; he was planning to go to agricultural college when he finished his A levels; he didn't talk much; he had nice hair; he didn't have a girlfriend.
What she knew about him now: he didn't talk much; he had a bald patch which he refused to protect from the sun; he didn't read; he was a careful driver; he trimmed his toenails by hand, in bed; he often forgot to remove his boots when coming into the house; he said he still loved her.
He was seventeen the first time he kissed a girl. The girl had long dark hair, and brown eyes, and chapped lips. They sank low in their seats on the school bus, leaning together, and she took his face in her hands and pushed her mouth on to his. She seemed to know what she was doing, he said later. He was wrong. She drew away just as he was beginning to get a sense of what he'd been missing, and said that she'd like to see him again that same evening. If he wasn't busy. They should go somewhere, she said, do something. He didn't ask where, or what. She got off the bus without saying anything else, and went into her house without looking back. She ran upstairs to her bedroom, and watched the bus move slowly towards the horizon, and wrote about the boy in her notebook.
Leaving March, where she lived then, the school bus passed through Wimblington before swinging round to follow the B1098, parallel to Sixteen Foot Drain, until it stopped near Upwell. It was a journey he made every day, from the school where he was studying for his A levels to his father's house where he helped on the farm in the evenings. Where the two of them run the farm together now. The road beside the Sixteen Foot is perfectly straight, lifted just above the level of the fields, and looking out of the window that afternoon felt, he said later, in a phrase she noted down, like he was passing through the sky.
The girl's name was Joanna. The boy's name was George. He came back for her the same night.
He has told her this part of the story many times, with the well-rehearsed air of a story being prepared for the grandchildren: how he waited until his father was asleep before taking the car-keys from the kitchen drawer, that he'd driven before, pulling trailers along farm tracks, but he didn't have a licence and his father would never have given him permission, how he remembered that she'd said she wanted to see him, to go somewhere and do something, that he knew he couldn't just sit there in that silent house, doing his homework and listening to the weather forecast and getting ready for bed.
She wonders, now, what would have been different if he had stayed home that night. She wants to know how he thinks he would feel, if that were the case. An impossible question, really.
The roads were empty and straight, and there was enough moonlight to steer by. She saw him coming from a long way off. Watching his headlights as they swung around the corners and pointed the way towards her. She was waiting outside by the time he got there.
She hadn't wanted to go anywhere in particular. She just wanted to sit beside him in the car and drive through the flatness of the landscape, looking down across the fields from the elevated roads. They drove from her house to Westry, over Twenty Foot Drain, past Whittlesey, and as they passed through Pondersbridge she put her hand on his thigh and kissed his ear. They crossed Forty Foot Bridge and drove through Ticks Moor, the windows open to the damp rich smell of a summer night in the fens, and beside West Moor he put his hand into her hair. They crossed the Old Bedford and New Bedford rivers, drove through Ten Mile Bank, Salter's Lode and Outwell, and on the edge of Friday Bridge she asked him to stop the car and they kissed for a long time.
Afterwards, they looked out across the fields and talked. They didn't know each other very well, then. He asked about her family and she asked about his. He told her about his mother, and she said she was sorry. She asked what he was going to do when he left school and he said he didn't know. He asked her the same and she said she wanted to write but that her father wanted her to go to agricultural college. She lifted his thin woollen jumper over his head and drew shapes on his bare skin with the sharp edge of her fingernail. She watched as he undid the buttons of her blouse. She took his hands and placed them against her breasts. There was the touch of her whisper in his ear, and the taste of his mouth, and the feel of his warm skin against hers, and the way his scalp moved when she pulled at his hair. Later, there was the smell of him on her hands as she stood outside her house and watched him drive away in his father's car, the two red lights getting smaller and smaller but never quite fading from view in the dark, fl at land.
He drove home along the straight road beside the Sixteen Foot, holding his hand to his chest. The moonlight shining off the narrow water. He was thinking about all the things she'd said, just as she was thinking about all the things he'd said.
He was thinking about his father, he said later, and about how long his father had been alone, and about how he knew now that he wouldn't be able to live on his own in the same way. Not now he knew what it meant to be with someone else. He was still thinking about her when he drove into a man and killed him.
First he was driving along the empty road thinking about her, and then there was a man in the road looking over his shoulder and the car was driving into him. It was hard to know where he'd come from. He'd come from nowhere. He was not there and then he was there and there was no time to do anything. There was no time to flinch, or to shout. He didn't even have time to move his hand from his chest, and as the car hit the man he was flung forwards and his hand was crushed against the steering wheel. The man's arms lifted up to the sky and his back arched over the bonnet and his legs slid under one of the wheels and his whole body was dragged down to the road and out of sight.
Those arms lifted up to the sky, that arching back.
The sound the man's body made when the car struck him. It was too loud, too firm, it sounded like a car driving into a fence rather than a man. And the sound he made. That muffled split-second of calling-out.
His arms lifted up to the sky, even his fingers pointing upwards, as if there was something he could reach up there to pull himself clear. His back arching over the bonnet of the car before being dragged down. The jolt as he was lost beneath the wheels. George's hand crushed between his chest and the steering wheel.
Then stillness and quiet.
He lay on his back with his legs underneath him, looking up at the night. His legs were bent back so far that they must have been broken. George stood by the car for a long time. The man didn't make a sound. There was no sound anywhere. The night was quiet and the moon bright and the air still and there was a man lying in the road a few yards away. It didn't feel real, and there were times now when they both wondered whether it had really happened at all. But there was the way the man's neck felt when George touched his fingers against the vein there. Not cold, but not warm either, not warm enough: he feels like a still-born calf. There was no pulse to feel. Only his broken body on the tarmac, his eyes, his open mouth.
He was wearing a white shirt, a red V-necked jumper, a frayed tweed jacket. His arms were up beside his head, and his fists were tightly clenched. A broken half-bottle of whisky was hanging from the pocket of his jacket. There didn't seem to be any blood anywhere; there were dirty black bruises on his face, which might have been old bruises anyway, but there was no blood. His clothes were ripped across the chest, but there was no blood. It was hard to understand how a man could be dragged under the wheels of a car and not bleed. It was hard to understand how he could not bleed and yet die so quickly.
The whites of his eyes looked yellow under the moonlight.
It was hard to understand who he was, and why he had been on the road in the middle of the night. Why he was dead now. It was hard to know what to do. George knelt beside him, looking out across the fields, up at the sky, at his father's car, his shaking hands, the sky.
He had his reasons, he says. He's often regretted it, and he's often thought that his reasons weren't enough, but he thinks he would do the same again.
If he'd been older when he made that journey then perhaps he would have been stronger; perhaps his thoughts would have been clearer. But he was seventeen, and he had never knelt beside a dead man before. So he drove away. He stood up, and turned away from the man, and walked back to his father's car, and drove away. He didn't look in the rear-view mirror, and he didn't turn around when he slowed for the junction.
I suppose it was at that stage that I began to realise
what had happened what I had done.
That was how he put it, when he told her, walking out on the path beside the canal after lunch, the dogs running along ahead of them with their claws clicking on the tarmac strip. I suppose.
He had driven his father's car into a man, and then over him, and now that man was dead. He felt a sort of sickness, a watery dread, starting somewhere down in his guts and rising to the back of his throat. His hands were locked on the wheel. He couldn't even blink.
And he knew, even before he got back to his father's house, that he would have to return to the man. He couldn't leave him laid out on the road like that, with his legs neatly folded under his back. He knew, or he thought he knew, that when the man was found then somehow he would be found too, and the girl who'd drawn upon his bare chest wouldn't even look him in the eye.
So it was her fault as well, it seems.
He fetched a shovel from a barn at his father's farm and drove back to where he'd hit the man. It sounds so terrible now. Cowardly? He carried the shovel down the embankment to the field below the road and took off his jumper and began to dig.
He was used to digging. The field had only recently been harvested, and the stubble was still in the ground, so he lay sections of topsoil to one side to be replaced. He was thinking clearly, working quickly but properly, ignoring the purpose of the hole. Once, knee-deep in the ground, he looked up the bank and realised what he was doing. But he couldn't see the man up on the road, so he managed to swallow the rising sickness and dig some more. And all this time, the sound of metal on soil, the sky above.
And then it was deep enough. It was done. So long as it was further beneath the surface than the plough-blades would reach then it was deep enough, most probably. He climbed up the embankment to the road, wanting to hurry and get it done but holding back from what he had to do, from the fact of having to touch him, having to pick him up and carry him down the bank and into the hole he had made. The death he had made in the hole he had made in the earth. He bent down to take the man's arms. He could smell whisky. He stopped, unwilling to touch him, unwilling to go through with what he'd found reason to do. They were good reasons, but they didn't seem enough. But then he remembered her skin on his, and her eyes, and he knew, he said, that he could do anything not to lose that.
She'd made him do it, then. That was how it had happened. He gripped the man's elbows and lifted them up to his waist. He backed away towards the embankment and the man's legs unfolded from beneath him, his head rolling down into his armpit, his half-bottle of whisky falling from his pocket and breaking on the road. He didn't stop. He kept dragging him away, away from the road, down the bank, into the field.
She'd said, when he finally told her all this, that she wanted to know it all. How it was done. How it had felt. So now she knew.
He laid the man down beside the hole in the earth and rolled him into it. The man fell face down, and he felt bad about that, about the man's face being in the mud. He went back to the place on the road and picked up the pieces of glass. He threw them down on to the man's back, and then he took the shovel and began to pile the earth back into the hole.
He threw soil over the man until he was gone, until the soil pressed down on him so that he was no longer a man or a body or a victim or anything. Just an absence, hidden under the ground. It was only then that he looked up at the sky, dark and silent over him, the moon hidden by a cloud. He drove past her house in March again, and then back to his father's house. He put the car-keys away in the kitchen drawer, and the shovel in the barn, and he stood in the shower until the hot-water tank had emptied and he was left standing beneath a trickle of water as cold as stone.
So now she knew.
They were married before either of them had the chance to go to university: his father retired early, after a heart attack, and he had to take over the farm. It only made sense for Joanna to move in and help. George had been there when his father collapsed: he'd heard the dogs barking at the tractor in the yard, and gone outside to see his father clutching at his chest and turning pale. He'd dragged him from the cab into the mud and begun hammering on his chest. I didn't want to lose him to the land as well. He'd beaten his father's heart with his fist, and forced air into his lungs, and called out for help. She was there with him. She rang the ambulance, and watched him save his father's life, and decided she would marry him. She can remember very clearly, standing there and deciding that. And he still thinks he was the one who asked her.
Excerpted from This Isn't The Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You: Stories by Jon McGregor Copyright © 2012 by Jon McGregor. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Jon McGregor is the author of the critically acclaimed If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, So Many Ways To Begin, and Even The Dogs. He is the winner of the Betty Trask Prize and the Somerset Maugham Award, has twice been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and was the runner-up in the 2010 BBC National Short Story Award. He was born in Bermuda in 1976. He grew up in Norfolk and now lives in Nottingham, England.
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