Always the Sun

Always the Sun

by Neil Cross


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Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize: From the creator of Luther comes a gripping tale of the deep bonds between father and son

Always the Sun finds one man pushed past his limit, walking a wobbly line between safeguarding and carnage. 

While mourning the death of his wife and chasing away the darkness with a bottle, widower Sam looks for a fresh start. Dragging his frail thirteen-year-old son, Jamie, with him, Sam abandons their life in Hackney to return to his hometown. On the outside, things appear to be improving: Sam finds a job as a nurse at a local psychiatric hospital, his older sister continues to offer whatever emotional support she can, and Jamie enrolls at Churchill Comprehensive.

But Jamie seems to be having trouble fitting in at school. A group of kids led by a particularly savage bully target the boy on his very first day, and the administration is apathetic at best and complicit in Jamie’s continued torment at worst. A meeting with the bully’s father yields no answers, and soon after, Jamie comes home bearing real, physical scars. Sam is left at a crossroads. With no one able or willing to help, how far will he go to protect his child?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781497692725
Publisher: Open Road Integrated Media LLC
Publication date: 01/27/2015
Pages: 324
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Neil Cross (b. 1969) is a British novelist and screenwriter best known as the creator of the multiple-award-winning international hit BBC crime series Luther , starring Idris Elba, and the international hit horror movie Mama. His highly acclaimed memoir, Heartland , was shortlisted for the PEN/Ackerley Prize in 2006. Cross has also written several thrillers, including Captured , Holloway Falls , and Always the Sun , which was longlisted for the 2004 Man Booker Prize. Cross continues to write for TV and film in the United Kingdom and the United States. He lives with his wife and two sons in Wellington, New Zealand.

Read an Excerpt

Always the Sun

By Neil Cross


Copyright © 2004 Neil Cross
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-9248-0


Sam steered the dirty-white hire van to the nearside kerb and killed the engine.

It was the last week of June, two days before Jamie's thirteenth birthday. For a while, they sat motionless and silent, listening to the slow tick of the engine. Then they exchanged a guarded, excited glance and raced each other to get out first.

The driver's door was dented and obstinate; Sam forced it with his shoulder, but he was too late. Jamie was already waiting on the kerb. Sam ambled over to join him. He laid a hand on Jamie's shoulder and together they looked at their new house.

The house stared back at them, blank and imperturbable. Scudding summer clouds were reflected in its windows, and a mismatched father and son. Sam was sunburnt and brawny. A messy head of corn-blond hair. Broad face on beefy shoulders. Pale-blue eyes and a knobby cudgel of a nose, broken long before and never properly re-set. Jamie was skinny and feline, the subtle echo of his mother. Skin like amber. Long, unkempt chestnut hair that hung over his collar and obscured his eyes. Both wore blue jeans faded to white, washed-out T-shirts and scuffed Adidas.

The house on Balaarat Street was a detached, double-fronted Victorian building that presided in tired majesty over the corner of Magpie and Cobden Avenues. Sam had known it since he was a boy. Through the street-wandering years of childhood and early adolescence, he must have passed its chipped green gate and inviolable hedges many hundreds of times. He'd never caught sight of whoever lived there. Although it had not developed the unhappy reputation of most long-empty houses, and despite the lack of broken and boarded windows, he'd always assumed it to be uninhabited.

It was Jamie who'd chosen to live here. They'd come house-hunting three months before. Sam remembered a cold, squally April day. The estate agent's confected enthusiasm was depleted by the morning's visits to several other properties, each of them found in some way wanting. With a disconsolate air, he parked his Golf GTI on Balaarat Street.

In the back of the car, Jamie looked up at the house.

Using his copy of the Sun for an umbrella, the estate agent hurried to the front door. Huddled into their jackets, Sam and Jamie followed.

Junk mail was piled behind the front door. The hallway was bare and uncarpeted and their footfalls and voices echoed pleasingly. The sitting room was high-ceilinged and cavernous. The kitchen was shadowy, with translucent blinds hung, rotting, at the windows. The appliances were antiquated, in chocolate browns and mustard yellows, furry with grease and dust, broken at the hinges.

Jamie used the heel of his hand to wipe a porthole in the wet kitchen window, through which he briefly inspected the garden. Then he turned and stamped upstairs.

Sam waited in the kitchen with the estate agent, who placed his rain-dappled newspaper face-down on the grimy work-surface to read the sports pages. Sam listened to the empty- house sounds of doors opening and slamming shut. He waited a few minutes before following Jamie upstairs. The floors were bare, laid here and there with brittle old newspapers. Spent bulbs, burnt nicotine yellow, hung from frayed cords.

He found Jamie in the master bedroom. He was standing at the bay window, looking down on the quiet street below. Sam crossed his arms and leant against the cold, glossy wall, the colour of custard.

He said, 'Shall we check out the garden?'

'Seen it.'

Sam laid a hand on his shoulder.

'Come on, sunshine. Have a proper look.'

They turned and clumped heavily down the naked stairs, along the hallway and through to the kitchen, where the estate agent was by now making a call from a mobile phone so tiny that Sam wondered briefly if he was speaking to his empty palm, like a street-corner nutcase. By training, Sam was a psychiatric nurse. Sometimes he saw the symptoms of disorder wherever he looked.

The garden was broad and high-walled; a tangled, rain-sodden–, knee-deep wilderness. At the far end stood a collapsed shed. In one corner leant an ancient, perilous-looking apple tree, its root-base embedded deep in ancient mulch.

'What do you think?' said Sam.

Jamie stooped and picked up a small nugget of damp, brittle masonry that lay on the weedy patio. He inspected it, crumbled it between his thumb and forefinger, then skipped it across the wild lawn like a pebble on a reedy pond.

He shrugged his shoulders.

'Dunno. It's big.'

'Which means?'

'It's all right.'

'Good all right? Or bad all right?'


'On what?'

He wiped his fingers on his jeans.

'Do you like it?'

Sam crossed his beefy arms and nodded his head twice.

'Yeah,' he said. 'It's good.'

'Am I allowed to choose my room?'

'I don't see why not.'

'What if I want the big one?'

Sam scratched the back of his neck.

'If that's the room you want.'

'And you're going to get it done up? Decorated and that?'

'Of course.'

'Decorated how?'

'I don't know. Decorated. You know—done up. We'll get someone in.'

'Can I do my room how I want to?'

'Well, that depends on how you want to do it.'

'Could I have PS2?'

'What, generally—or for the room?'


'We can talk about that.'

Jamie chewed at his downy upper lip and crossed his arms, upon which there seemed to hang no muscle. He brushed the hair from his eyes and scrutinized the garden. There was a rash of small pimples across his forehead. He scuffed his Adidas across the damp surface of the loam where it met the weather-damaged patio.

'All right then. If I can have the big room.'

In that moment Sam missed his wife more acutely than he would have believed possible. It felt like homesickness. He disguised it by pinching at the knotty bridge of his nose and resting his palm on the crown of his son's head. He closed his eyes and tried to remember her scent, the warm softness of her belly, the musky incense of her throat and underarms.

Sometimes he was able to forget what she had become. Instead he recalled the woman who married him, the woman inside whom his son had budded, a secret efflorescence, a polyp unfolding from nothing, reaching for the sun.

Their London flat had already found a buyer, a property developer who was happy to ignore its poor decorative order, paying cash at fifteen thousand pounds less than market value. Even that figure was a great deal more than Sam and Justine had paid for the property, sixteen years earlier, and Sam was able to return to his home town and buy a house outright, using the equity alone. He left Justine's life insurance payout untouched.

To go house-hunting, he and Jamie had driven from London in a hired car. They camped at Mel's for a week. Into the spare room, Mel had jammed an elderly, steel-sprung camp- bed and a tatty futon. Upon these Sam and Jamie had laid out their sleeping bags. It was a squeeze, but that only added to the sense of adventure. It was like camping, without the unhappy imperative of being outside.

Since he was a tiny child, Jamie had been scared of cows. In return, cows seemed abnormally attracted to him. They would cross any field to procure his company. They would slowly gather round, nuzzling at him as if he were an object of singular curiosity.

At Mel's, Jamie and Sam woke early. There followed extravagant arm-stretching, grunts of discomfort and smacking of sleep-gummy mouths. In T-shirt and boxer shorts, Sam plodded downstairs to make a cup of tea, which they drank in companionable, masculine silence. When the mugs were empty, Sam told Jamie to take a shower.

When Jamie emerged from the bathroom two minutes later, barely wet, Sam was waiting for him on the landing.

'Now try again,' he said.

Jamie rolled his eyes and turned back to the shower.

This time, he was gone so long that Sam began to worry. He stomped from the bedroom and pounded on the door, shouting that he needed to piss.

There was a pause: the rustle of a shower curtain being pulled back. Bare feet slapping on wet tiles. Clutching a towel to his waist, Jamie answered the door. His hair was in wet, shampooed spikes. There was no fat on him. His avian bones and musculature were tight- packed in olive skin. His taut, paler belly bulged slightly above the towel. Sam was overcome by tenderness. He wondered if Jamie had been using the sound of the shower to disguise his sobbing. Sam still did that, sometimes.

Jamie loped back to the still-running shower. Sam stood before the lavatory and forced out a meagre trickle. He glanced at Jamie from the corner of his eye. He was massaging his soapy hair. Foamy white rivulets ran between his scrawny shoulder-blades.

Sam went downstairs again, this time to make them breakfast.

By now, Mel was up. She had bed hair and was smoking a cigarette at the kitchen table. She wore a silky, ivory-white dressing-gown and oversized, fluffy bedroom slippers.

Sam rummaged in the kitchen cupboards. Eventually he found the frying pan. Its base was blackened and its handle, melted in places like volcanic glass, had come loose. He spent a few moments tightening the greasy screw with the round tip of a bread knife.

Mel yawned into the back of her hand. She was tall and slim and caustic and languid, with a Roman nose that, earlier in life, had caused her much misery. She drew on the cigarette in a manner that suggested another age and a different class.

'Do you know where you'll be looking?'

Sam went to the fridge. He inspected the sell-by date on a box of eggs.

'I only bought them Tuesday,' said Mel.

Sam put down the eggs and hunted round until he located a pint of milk and a humble chunk of butter bandaged in silvered, papery rags.

'Dunno really,' he said. 'The Merrydown Estate's still nice.'

'It's lovely round there,' said Mel. 'They've got a brand new whatsit. High Street. Nice shops.'

Merrydown was the name of the private estate that bordered the council estate where Mel lived. She'd moved in twenty years ago, shortly before she and Unka Frank were married. The house had been too big for her since he left.

'We'd be close to you,' said Sam.

Mel scratched at her bed hair and yawned like a lion. It was still early and she had never been good at mornings. All around, the house was the same mess it had been since the day she moved in, an excited eighteen year old.

'Will you send Jamie to Churchill? Or go private?'

Sam cracked four eggs into a plastic measuring jug. He added pepper, salt and a drop of milk and beat the mixture with a fork. His back to his sister, he shrugged.

He said: 'I don't see what's wrong with Churchill.'

'It's a bit rough.'

He turned to face her and laughed, a touch incredulous.

'We went there,' he said. 'We did all right.'

She sipped at her milky coffee.

'It's different now.'

'Mel,' said Sam. He laughed. He didn't want to be patronizing. 'Jamie and I are living in Hackney. Compared to that, Churchill Comprehensive will be like Disneyland.' He saw her expression and softened. 'Look,' he said, 'he's grown up in London. It's a rough place. This doesn't even feel like a city to him. He thinks it's the countryside.'

'And he's told you this, has he?'

He poured the beaten-egg mixture into the delicately sizzling frying pan.

'Yeah,' he said. 'Well, not in so many words.'

'In how many words, exactly?'

'I don't know. He thinks it'll be like a permanent holiday. And he's looking forward to having you near. He thinks it'll be like TV. Dropping in on his aunt on the way home from school. Do you want eggs?'


'How do you want them?'

She looked at him along her nose.

'Do them a bit firm. I hate it when you do eggs like snot.'

The toaster popped. He hurried to butter three rounds of toast before stirring at the bubbling eggs with a plastic spatula.

Jamie came downstairs, barefoot in clean orange T-shirt and dirty blue jeans. He smelt of shower gel. He'd combed his wet hair from his face. He kissed Mel on the cheek.

She said, 'Your dad's doing bogey eggs for breakfast.'

'Gross,' said Jamie. 'Can I have Crunchy Nut Cornflakes?'

'No,' said Sam. He tipped the frying pan in order that Mel and Jamie could see inside, and prodded the mixture with a fork.

'See?' he said. 'Nice and firm.'

'Is there any bacon?'

'Not that I'd actually eat.'

'God,' said Mel. 'Is that still in there?'

She went to the fridge and looked inside.

When breakfast was done, Sam left the washing-up soaking in hot water. He knew it would be there when they got back. He and Jamie met the estate agent at 9.30 a.m. They saw four houses in the Merrydown Estate before arriving at Balaarat Street.

Jamie had never had a garden, nor access to any park that Sam and Justine considered safe in the absence of direct adult supervision. Although he professed no interest in the wilderness at the back of Balaarat Street, at the rope-swing that hung from a high bough of the inclined apple tree, and although it was raining, Sam could see the light in his eyes—a late, welcome glimpse of his diminishing childhood.

Jamie buried his hands in the pockets of his Levi's and sauntered inside, just as the estate agent was slipping the tiny phone back in his trouser pocket.

In a few hours the deal was done. Later, Sam whistled over the washing-up.

It took nearly four months. There were contracts to be exchanged and renovations to be completed. Sam employed Mel to liaise with the contractors and to act as point of contact with the site manager. He knew well how fearsome she could be, and it was a successful stratagem: disregarding a few details, the work was completed only five weeks behind schedule.

But the wait was dead time, like waiting in a foreign airport for a delayed flight home.

They were ready to move long before there was anywhere to go. Months before, Sam began to pack their essential belongings into boxes and crates. Everything else he got rid of: clothes, video cassettes, broken and tarnished items of Justine's jewellery, odd earrings, half-empty perfume bottles that didn't smell of her any more; postcards, letters, her wedding dress and shoes.

His mother-in-law had started this process while Justine was still alive. Diane was ash- blonde, clipped, efficient. She suggested they gather those clothes her daughter would euphemistically 'not be needing', and take them to a charity shop. Sam agreed. He insisted only that the charity shop should not be in Hackney. He didn't want to come across strangers dressed in his wife's clothes. He and Diane stuffed the clothing into garden sacks, which Sam loaded into the back of Diane's estate car. She drove the stuff home to Bath.

The same day, Sam packed their wedding and holiday photographs into a number of boxes and sealed them with tape. In blue marker pen, he wrote: S&J wed, etc, B-bados 92, Turkey 89, Devon 90, mil. eve 00.

He stared down at the boxes. Their marriage, codified.

The degenerative brain disorder that killed Justine was called 'fatal familial insomnia'. It was a vanishingly rare condition caused by the action of prions, the enigmatic rogue proteins that also caused scrapie in sheep and bovine spongiform encephalopathy in cattle. Justine withdrew from them bit by bit, minute by minute until, near the end, it was impossible not to wish what remained of her more speedily gone.

The first sign had been difficulty in sleeping. But Justine was an art teacher in the local College of Further Education, which was underfunded and understaffed. She was stressed. They didn't think much of it.

Within a few weeks, the ability to sleep—but not the longing for it—had deserted her. Her GP assured her that all chronic insomniacs slept far more than they imagined, and she prescribed pills. The pills didn't work. Later, different doctors ran tests. Working shifts in a controlled environment, they observed the passage of forty-eight entirely sleepless hours. By now, Justine was debilitated and bewildered. She so very badly wanted to sleep.

Before the condition was diagnosed, Justine's sanity left her. She was awake until being awake drove her insane.

Even when she became deranged, being awake gnawed at her bones, confining her eventually to a wheelchair. She could no longer distinguish between dream-states and waking reality. She passed randomly from one to the other. There came a time when she no longer knew her mother, her husband or her only son. During those final months she was shrunken and grotesque and sometimes violently maniacal, curled like a cricket and shrieking at chimeras and imaginary colours.


Excerpted from Always the Sun by Neil Cross. Copyright © 2004 Neil Cross. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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