Dark Chapter

Dark Chapter

by Winnie M. Li

Hardcover

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781943818624
Publisher: Polis Books
Publication date: 09/12/2017
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 870,060
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.20(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Winnie M Li is a writer and producer, who has worked in the creative industries on three continents. A Harvard graduate, she has written for travel guide books, produced independent feature films, programmed for film festivals, and developed eco-tourism projects. After graduating with Distinction in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths (where she was shortlisted for the Pat Kavanagh Prize 2015), she now currently writes across a range of media (including a column for The Huffington Post), runs arts festivals, and is a PhD researcher in Media and Communications at the London School of Economics. She was Highly Commended for the CWA Debut Dagger 2015 and also shortlisted for the Emma Humphreys Memorial Prize. She lives in London yet is somewhat addicted to travel. Dark Chapter is her first novel.





Follow Winnie M. Li online at WinnieMLi.com or on Twitter at @winniemli.

Read an Excerpt

Dark Chapter


By Winnie M Li

Legend Times Ltd

Copyright © 2017 Winnie M Li
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78507-906-1


CHAPTER 1

She sits in the office, waiting for her psychologist to finish fiddling with a video camera. It is a small room, fairly cramped in an academic, state-funded way, and tall bookshelves yawn above her, filled with no-nonsense fare about trauma recovery, patient monitoring, cognitive behavior therapy methods. On the cork board to her right, Doctor Greene has pinned handwritten thank-you notes from past patients and one postcard image of a lone palm tree on a white sand beach.

She turns her gaze to the grey skies outside the window. South London in November. The arc of the London Eye visible in the distance, astride miles of council estate blocks that seem to run in an uninterrupted forest of concrete down Denmark Hill, past Elephant and Castle, all the way to the Thames.

Satisfied with the blinking red light on the video camera, Doctor Greene sits down, smooths her corn-blonde hair, faces her patient.

"So, talk me through it one more time. In as much detail as possible."

She tries not to sigh, she has been expecting this, but a note of exasperation escapes. "Really? One more time?"

"I know it's exhausting for you. But it's an essential part of the therapy. You can do it as slowly as you want."

"No emotion?"

"Focus just on the facts. The details. The emotions will be there, but that's fine."

Doctor Greene is patient, non-judgmental, and that's what she likes about her. That and her librarian sense of fashion and dowdy obsession with cats, so unexpected in a slim, blonde thirty-something. Normally she might feel intimidated, but here she only senses tacit support from the psychologist, a certain nerdish-ness, and a guarded dedication to understanding her patients.

She looks at the video camera, exhausted. The last thing she wants is to talk through it one more time. She has been talking through it for months now, to the police, to her doctors, to the Crisis Response Centre, to the Mental Health Board who assessed if she needed treatment, and now – multiple times – to her psychologist. Always slightly different versions. Some focusing more on the medical details: where she'd been hit, what she'd been forced to do. Some more on her attacker: what did he look like, how did he speak. But always the same scene rises to the surface: the bright spring morning, the sunlight filtering through the trees, the figure with the white jumper coming up the slope.

She could probably recite it in her sleep by now, and in fact, that's what her mind does every night these days, concocting myriad adaptations in her dreams. Sometimes the dreams are with people she once knew, forgotten faces of grown-up jocks from middle school. Sometimes it is in an imaginary place – a science-fiction landscape, half-absorbed from a film she's seen. But there is always the meeting point between forest and field, that liminal space hovering like some safe, illuminated refuge beyond the trees. Only it isn't safe, because the bright field had offered no refuge, and it continues to tease her in her sleep, gleaming on the edges of her consciousness.

The red light on the video camera blinks. The palm tree beckons from its rectangle of postcard.

She clears her throat and starts again.


An hour later, she walks down Denmark Hill towards Camberwell Green, in the last hour of daylight that afternoon. It is a familiar routine now. Tuesday afternoons: take the bus to Camberwell, have your session with Doctor Greene, maybe stop at the Chinese grocery store on the way back before catching the bus home.

She feels constantly drained of energy these days. A three-hour outing is the limit of her abilities. That weird, debilitating agoraphobia, which had plagued her in the weeks immediately after the incident, always threatens to come back. The sun can be too bright, the wind too sharp, the masses of people on the street too loud and incomprehensible. Why risk being outdoors?

There is always the safety of her apartment, her bedroom, her bed.

On this afternoon, her bed seems particularly welcoming as she draws away from the Maudsley Hospital, down the hill, into the real world.

Focus just on the facts. The emotions will be there, but that's fine.

But the thing is the emotions aren't there. For months now, she has felt stripped of any feeling whatsoever. Parties come and go, friends get engaged, her mother nags her on the phone – and she feels nothing. Just a strange sort of detachment from the world, a ghost floating through the land of the real people: observing, noting how the living live their lives and then drifting away. She can't even bring herself to feel sad or angry about her lack of feeling. There is just a blank void of sensation. No emotions, no reaction from this one. Noted.

She drifts into the Chinese grocery store. Wang's Supermarket. She can't read the labels on the products, or talk to the staff in Mandarin or Cantonese, but there is a certain comfort in being amid grocery store aisles that remind her of her childhood. Stacks of ramen packages for 30p each, glistening in their plastic wrappers and promising flavors of Curry Prawn, Spicy Beef, Imperial Chicken. Hefty cans of water chestnuts, straw mushrooms, lotus root. Ingredients she wouldn't think of buying a year ago, but which she had grown up on, stir-fried in her mother's wok or stewed in a winter broth.

Why she is buying them now, she has no idea. They aren't any easier to cook than a Tesco ready-meal. But she had come to Camberwell for her first assessment at the Maudsley Hospital, and the Wang's Supermarket had been right here on the high street, smelling just like the Chinese grocery store of her youth.

As she wanders the aisles, the store speakers play a Chinese-language song, one of those half-wailing renditions seemingly voiced by a suicidal middle-aged woman, singing about love and loss. It's something her mother might listen to, but it holds no meaning for her, other than an uncomfortable familiarity, just like anything Chinese that she encounters in her adult life.

She selects four ramen packets, a can of baby corn and a tall bottle of soy sauce. She pays for them with a five-pound note and steps out of that musty space onto the street, the Chinese soundtrack still ringing in her ears.

A group of youths push past, coming home from school in their uniforms. They are black, all five of them in their early teens, shouting loudly, and she pays them no heed. Drifts past them, oblivious.

At the bus stop, there is another group of teens. There are three of them, white, and they are looking at two girls on the sidewalk. Snickering, and making some comment she can't hear.

She brushes shoulders with one of them as she steps onto the bus. He turns and looks at her for a moment. She can't quite gauge what is in his look – adolescent lust or rage or maybe just annoyance. But his ice-blue eyes lance through her, almost recognizable, and her stomach turns. Sweat stands out on her forehead. Stumbling her way up the stairs, she sits down, tries to quell the rising nausea in her gut. She watches as the teenage boys continue down the street, knowing he is not the one, he is just some other teenage kid with a slight resemblance.

But the shame of it all. That even a passing encounter with a random schoolkid can cause this much disruption.

The nausea wells up, yet she controls it, keeps it at a manageable level. She will not be sick. Just haunted. She draws her knees to her chest and hugs them, curls up into a ball and looks out the window, as the bus draws away from the curb.


* * *

For a moment, he can't remember how he got home. Still in clothes from the night before, head pounding. Must've fallen asleep on the couch. Late morning, and the sun streams in through the window, too bright. Birds chirp somewhere.

Da is out, and his brother, too.

Then he remembers: just a few hours earlier, swaying in the dark street with Gerry and Donal, drinking a mouthful of cheap whiskey and then another. There'd been pills that night. And dope. He remembers wandering into a pub with the lads, getting chased out by the owner. Then hunkering down at Gerry's and watching porn.

He'd seen this one before. Where she bends over to blow your man and you can see everything, everything. That gaping pink hole between her legs, so alien and bizarre. Like some extra-terrestrial mouth out of a sci-fi film, only this one comes with tits, giant ones, enough to make you hard just thinking of them.

He thinks about them tits and already, with the sun streaming and the birds chirping, feels himself stir.

He reckons it's too early. Even though he's got the whole place to himself.

He looks round. Da and Michael are out for sure. But save it for later. Besides, he's got a smashing headache and happens to be starving. Fucking ravenous.

Still reeling, hungover, he staggers to the caravan's cramped kitchen. Pulls open the refrigerator, the cabinets, finds a quarter packet of biscuits.

Biscuits. Fucking biscuits for breakfast.

A half-drunk mug of water sits on the counter and he drinks that, scarfs down the biscuits, leans against the counter. Another search through the cabinets, but there's nothing, only a mouldy loaf of bread, expired six days ago.

His stomach gurgles, hungrier than before the biscuits.

Christ, how long did Da say he'd be gone for? Four days, was it?

He sits back down on the couch, cradles his head in his hands. Maybe them pills haven't worn off. Maybe he's still rolling and can go another few hours without eating. Wouldn't that be grand?

Oh Jaysus, it'd been a good night. The look on the pub owner's face, the three of them legging it out the back door, packets of crisps in their arms. The sting of the whiskey down his throat, the spin of the night air after he took them yokes.

He cracks a grin at the thought of it, wishes one of the lads was with him now. But he can't remember what came of them, or how he got back from Gerry's.

Silence. Sunlight. Then he hears a pebble crack against the outside of the caravan.

It's that little gimp from next door.

Sure enough, a toddler's voice cuts through the morning, the mam shouting something miserable at him from their caravan. Another pebble hits the wall.

He clenches his jaw, realises it's still aching from the night before.

Another pebble. Plink.

Annoyed, he bursts out of the caravan, the sunlight flashing into his eyes and he rounds on the toddler.

"Will you quit it?"

The toddler giggles and runs a few steps closer. Brown curls and stupid wide-set pale eyes that just laugh at him. Like he's playing a game or something.

He scowls at the kid again, raising a hand like to slap him, and this time the kid squeals and runs inside.

He snorts and squints against the too-bright sun. Warmer today than it has been. Ten caravans crouch in the April morning, brilliant white against the green and brown of the field, and the sky races along the horizon, crisp and clear with the springtime.

For a moment, his hangover fades and he smells the mown grass and turned-up earth. Nice smells, but cut by the diesel of some engine in the next field over. Sunlight on his eyelids and he can stay there for another minute or two, his eyes closed, just him and the field. Summer is coming, and with it, long bright days when you can go out wearing only a T-shirt and relaxed tourists make easy targets. Warm evenings, girls in thin dresses, girls who want to let you touch them.

A child's voice breaks his thoughts.

"Your da's gone down to Armagh."

He opens his eyes. "Yea, I know."

The toddler watches him from a few metres away, leaning against the corner of the caravan. Christ, you can't take a piss here without everyone knowing.

Speaking of, it's about time for a slash. He turns and heads away, to the edge of the field.

"Where you going?"

He don't answer. Just keeps walking away, feeling the kid's eyes on his back. Twenty metres out, he stands on the ridge of the plateau and undoes his flies for a piss.

The wind pushes clouds along the horizon, and he sees Belfast stretched before him, a cluster of grey and brown buildings rising up in the ugly knot of the city centre, before reaching the sea.

Between him and the city, the glen winds down below, under housing estates and patchy fields. The sound of the river, loud with spring rains, drifts up to where he stands, shaking his last drops of piss onto the ground.

He breathes in the morning air. Best fucking view in the world for a slash.


* * *

"The West Highland Way. That's the last one."

She pushes the pin into the map, stabbing the mountains somewhere north of Glasgow, and sits down, satisfied.

"Okay, so only five long-distance trails," Melissa says with a note of sarcasm.

"Five trails," she nods. "I can do that. Sometime in my life."

"So ... you're still going to be hiking these when you're fifty?"

She laughs. God, fifty. "Hopefully by twenty-five I'll have done all of these. Maybe thirty?"

She is eighteen and sits on her bed in the dorm room. Melissa flops down next to her, unkempt hair sprawling on the dark-green bedspread. For a moment, they rest in silence on the bed, staring up at the map of Europe dotted with its colorful push-pins.

"Viv, that's nuts. You're gonna do these all on your own?"

She shrugs. "Haven't thought about it, but why not?"

After all, isn't that the whole point? Thoreau living in solitude, off in his cabin by Walden Pond. Walt Whitman waxing lyrical about leaves of grass, writing under a tree while his beard grew longer and shaggier with the passing seasons. Edward Abbey drifting down a vast canyon in the American Southwest, the rock walls rising on either side of him, just him and the canyon.

"You're completely nuts," Melissa says, shaking her head. "Meanwhile, I'd just be happy if I could get Danny Brookes to have coffee with me."

"Really? You're still into him?"

"Well, until someone better comes along to crush on."

She smiles to herself. At the moment, there is no one – not one boy on campus – who interests her. Maybe on the fringes of some crowd she has glimpsed a boy who looked thoughtful, different from the others. But boys in general, with their unfunny jokes, their swaggering need to be seen as confident in class ... boys don't hold much interest for her at the moment.

Melissa is still gabbling on. "I caught Charlie Kim staring at me a few times in Econ."

"Would you be into him?"

"He's kind of interesting. I've never kissed an Asian guy before."

"Neither have I!"

They both break into giggles.

"But wouldn't your parents want you to?" Melissa asks.

"What, kiss an Asian guy? At the moment, I don't think my parents want me kissing any guy, to be honest."

"You're lucky." Melissa reaches out and strokes her friend's hair. "My mom keeps making these annoying comments. Have you found a nice boy yet? Any special someone in your life? I mean, we've only been in college four months!"

"I'm kinda glad my mom doesn't ask me things like that."

Another pause. It's Friday night and from outside in the hallway, they can hear other students getting ready to go out in search of the loudest, most alcohol-fueled party. The boys at the end of the hall are bellowing; the girl next door shouts at them to shut up. Someone on the floor has turned up their stereo and the sounds of Oasis drift through several walls.

"You have the most amazing hair," Melissa coos. She runs her fingers through Vivian's thick black mane.

"It's just my hair. It grows out of my head."

"Yeah, but see what grows out of my head?" Melissa gestures to her own limp brown hair. "If I had hair like this ..." She trails off, but continues to stroke the long black strands.

"What?" she asks, curious. "What would you do if you had my hair?"

"I'd ... I'd ... I dunno, I'd come up with the most amazing kinds of hairstyles for it. I'd wear it different every day!"

"Too much trouble," she scoffs.

But Melissa jumps up, excited. "No, let's do it! Do you have any bobby pins and hairspray?" She looks around the room, but hardly any hair products or accessories sit on the dresser.

"Doesn't matter. I'll figure something out. Honestly, this'll be amazing." Melissa gets up on her knees and begins brushing her friend's hair. "You can wear it to the Sigma Chi party later tonight."

And for a moment, she likes the thought of that. No longer the unsure teenager who only started wearing contacts two years ago. And maybe she can meet a nice boy who isn't a braying jock. Someone who might make her heart skip a beat.

She winces a bit as Melissa pulls tightly at her scalp, too eager with her brushing. But she relaxes as the fingers work through her hair, sometimes plaiting, sometimes bunching the strands into elastics. She sits patiently and looks at the map on the opposite wall. The West Highland Way. The Camino de Santiago. The GR15. Trails that snake their way over hills and through valleys, somewhere on the other side of the world.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Dark Chapter by Winnie M Li. Copyright © 2017 Winnie M Li. Excerpted by permission of Legend Times Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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