When nine-year-old Rose is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, Natalie must use her imagination to keep her daughter alive. They begin dreaming about and seeing a man in a brown suit who feels hauntingly familiar, a man who has something for them. Through the magic of storytelling, Natalie and Rose are transported to the Atlantic Ocean in 1943, to a lifeboat, where an ancestor survived for 50 days before being rescued. This simply unforgettable debut celebrates the power of words, the redemptive energy of a mother’s love—and what it really means to be brave.
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
Louise Beech writes travel pieces for the Hull Daily Mail, where she was a columnist for 10 years. Her short fiction has won the Glass Woman Prize, the Eric Hoffer Award for Prose, and the Aesthetica Creative Works competition, as well as shortlisting for the Bridport Prize twice and being published in a variety of UK magazines.
Read an Excerpt
How To Be Brave
By Louise Beech
Orenda BooksCopyright © 2015 Louise Beech
All rights reserved.
A SORT OF RECOVERY POSITION
Still two of us left but we are getting very weak. Can't stand up now. We will stick it to the end.
There were two of us that night.
Outside, the autumn dark whispered to me. Halloween's here already, it said. The pumpkins are glowing, smell the whiff of old leaves, of bonfires coming, of changes, of winter, of endings. But I wasn't listening because inside the house my daughter Rose was whispering aloud the words in my current paperback, slowly forming each vowel and consonant as she kicked my kitchen cupboard and twirled her hair about her finger.
"'Vases of jasmine and ..."' she began. 'How do you say that? "Vases of jasmine and s-ta-r-g-a-z-e-r lilies barely dispel the urine aroma" ... urine, is that wee? "Framed pictures of cities accen– How do you say that? A-c-c-e-n-t-u-a-t-e ...'"
'Don't read that,' I snapped, taking the book from Rose and putting it in the drawer. 'It's not suitable for nine-year-olds. It's got bad words in it.' To myself I said, 'Plus it's not very good.'
'So why are you reading it?'
'I'm not. I'm going to give it to the charity shop.'
Rose opened and shut the drawer, over and over, until I stopped her. She was wearing a cat costume, with silky velvet gloves and ears, pencil whiskers and a smudge of black polish on her nose. 'You always think I'm stupid,' she said.
'I don't. You're not.'
'I understand adult books, you know,' she pouted. 'I read Jane Eyre. I can do all the words.'
'I'm sure you can.'
'And you say bad words all the time.'
I couldn't argue with that.
She slammed the drawer one last time. 'I'm thirsty,' she said.
'You know where the tap is.'
I was grumpy from spending three hours gutting and carving a face into a lopsided pumpkin. Rose had wanted to make a Despicable Me minion, but I'd insisted I hadn't the skill. She hadn't argued, so I'd gone ahead and cut a grinning face, all wonky, with one eye bigger than the other. I swore when I cut the end of my finger, and Rose had said language and told me I was a wuss. The blood dripped onto our pumpkin, leaving him with two lines of auburn hair.
'The words were jumping,' Rose said, gasping from having downed the glass of water in one go.
'The bad ones in your book.' She kicked at the kitchen cupboard. Charcoal leggings had ridden up her legs, exposing matchstick ankles. When had they got so thin? Her reddish blonde hair needed washing but I didn't want her going out in the chill air with damp curls.
'Don't kick my doors,' I said.
'Bad words, swearwords, bad words, bastards.'
'Rose!' I touched her clammy forehead. 'Are you feeling okay? You must eat something if you're going out trick-or-treating with Hannah and Jade. What do you want? Beans on toast?'
'Swearwords,' Rose said defiantly, and pushed me away.
I rummaged in the fridge for something that might tempt her to eat, and perhaps behave better. Cold noodles, some tuna, half a tin of beans, custard. That would do it; the magic of cake and custard.
When I turned, the world had changed. It was quiet, slow. There were no whispers, no bad words or swearwords, only Rose falling, her mouth moving, as if she were reading in our book nook. I couldn't hear the swirl of syllables, yet something in their rhythm gave me déjà vu. I tried to read her lips; What are you telling me? I wanted to scream.
But I was silent as I watched her fall – down, down, down – and I couldn't move. Couldn't save her.
When her head hit the tiles with a thick crack the spell broke too. I dropped the bowl of custard and ran to her. I shook her limp shoulders and called 'Rose, Rose, Rose' – not what you're supposed to do in an emergency, no sort of recovery position or mouth-to-mouth wake-up kiss, just what comes naturally when you want your child back.
'Jake,' I cried. 'Help me!' But of course he was far away and wouldn't be back for months. 'Help me!' I screamed into the night. 'Somebody – help me!'
The candle in our skewed, grinning pumpkin danced as though mocking Rose's lifelessness – but where had the draught come from? I felt it on my face too. Had a door opened somewhere? Had someone heard me?
'Who's there?' I called.
But no one answered; it was just us.
And then we were surrounded by the smell of the sea – salty, potent, fresh. I'd been smelling it randomly for days. We live on the Humber Estuary but we're still twenty-five miles inland; yet somehow it had found me; the sea. I'd been getting out of bed at dawn and a briny breeze would greet me, as though wafting up from the bedclothes. I'd hang out wet clothes and it would float down from the trees, the clouds, somewhere.
It faded. So I sniffed Rose's cheek.
I found comfort in her powerful perfume; it calmed my panic a little. Often when she joins me on the sofa for a film I deeply inhale the top of her head, absorbing the hint of school classrooms and sleep and breath. She asks why and shoos me off, but I can't resist. Smelling a new baby is the next thing you do after studying them; so as Rose lay on the floor by the washing machine I breathed in her scent as though it would sustain me through what might come.
Then I dialled 999 and we waited.
* * *
An ambulance siren heralded two paramedics. All I can remember about them is that they were male. They came into the kitchen and bent down to check Rose and asked questions and made smudgy footprints like preschool paintings and listened to her heart and took her pulse. We must have looked a curious picture in our Halloween costumes, me wearing a pale-blue nurse's dress stained with beetroot juice and Rose in her black cat suit.
They asked more questions.
So I told them in a tumble of words, 'One minute we were making our pumpkin and then she was talking about naughty words in my book and then I looked for custard and then suddenly she went down, cold. She plays tricks on me all the time, but this wasn't mischief.'
The paramedics gently lifted Rose onto a stretcher, covered her with a red blanket and wheeled her to the ambulance. I followed. Our neighbour, April, came up the path with what looked like a severed head in her hand – 'a pumpkin,' my future, looking-back self would say, 'it was Halloween, remember, and you were going to let Rose go with her friends to the town square, carrying skeleton bags to beg for sweets, you made them promise to stay together.'
I noticed our rhododendron bush needed trimming but remembered the shears were broken; the thought came and went like a rescue flare at sea, flashing and then dying. I climbed into the ambulance after Rose. April was still on our path, so I smiled at her, and was not sure why. Perhaps it was to say I was fine, we were fine, it would all be fine. One of her fingers was hooked through the pumpkin's cut-out eye.
I didn't hear the ambulance engine rev up or the doors close or the sirens start, but I do now, long afterwards, when I think of it in the dark. The world lost its sound again and it was just us two.
I removed Rose's glove and held a cool hand in mine. It fit perfectly, like they were two warped jigsaw pieces that make sense when joined. I studied her fine lines and traced the scar from when she fell off the shed roof and pressed my nose against her skin. She wouldn't let me hold her hand anymore, and a part of me was glad of unconsciousness, of the chance to kiss it like I had when she was first born.
Then I'd willed her small fingers to be kind, to be gifted, to be brave. To hold a pen or guitar or paintbrush. Now I willed them to ball into fists and push me away – to wake up.
At Accident and Emergency I had to let go and Rose was wheeled straight to a private bed area, black tail dangling from the trolley. I hovered by the curtain, not wanting to be a bother. My relief that these medics acted so quickly and knew what to do and did it without pause kept me from absolute panic; alarm at why they needed to never surfaced.
A nurse called Gill took me aside, asking for details and if she could call anyone. Her untidy red hair suggested a long shift. I managed to give our names and tell her there wasn't anyone near enough that I wanted.
'Has Rose had any symptoms?' she asked.
In the din I thought for a second she'd asked if Rose had had any sympathies and felt a curious guilt that I apparently had none.
'She's only nine,' I said.
'Yes – they're going to look after her. I just need to ask how she's been in the last few weeks. What kind of ...'
And I understood my mistake. 'Thirst,' I said.
'Drinking lots?' asked Gill.
I nodded. 'Oh, lots.'
The thirst came first, beginning softly, like a spring shower and building into a force-ten gale. It had all started when Jake left so I'd thought it was psychosomatic or that Rose was seeking attention. I'd brushed off her grumbles at first, suggested she carry a bottle of water with her.
One night she had come to my too-empty bed; I woke to her ghostly presence, standing at my side. She said afterwards that I was always far crabbier than her dad when disturbed and this had made her watch me for ten minutes until I stirred.
'I'm thirsty,' she said.
I didn't turn the light on; when she was a baby I always fed her without one during the night, knowing we'd both stay sleepy that way. It worked and she had been a settled infant. People called me lucky, but I'm just practical. And I like the dark – it's safe.
'I'm thirsty,' Rose repeated, her tone mimicking mine when I feign patience.
'Get a drink then,' I said. 'You don't have to ask for a drink.'
'I don't think a drink will work.' Even in the dark I knew the corner of her lip was curling up like old paper.
'Rose, it's late. Shit, I have to get up early.'
'I'm allowed to swear when I'm disturbed.'
'Mum, this thirst, it's different. Like it's also hunger.'
I sat up. Tried to be kind. 'Maybe you're dreaming. Maybe go back to sleep and you'll wake up fine.'
'No, mum, I won't. I had it yesterday and the one before that and it's totally not going. It's getting bigger.'
I smiled at her childlike description, left the bed's warmth and put an arm about my daughter's slight frame. She put her damp head to my shoulder – a place she now reached easily – and her forehead smelt of gravy and her hair tickled my cheek like shampooed spiders and she cried softly, as if I wasn't even there; as if she were resigned to this everlasting thirst; as if she were whispering to someone far away, from long ago.
We went to the kitchen and I watched her messily glug two glasses of juice, realising she had a book under her arm. Always a book – even in sleep. She'd probably dozed off with a finger between chapters and not let go.
I walked Rose back to bed, covered her up and said, 'Sleep now.'
'Still thirsty,' she muttered, but snuggled down.
'Stress can do that,' I said, sudden realisation causing the words to jump from my mouth without analysis. Then, more to myself, I added, 'Anxiety can make your mouth dry so you think you're thirsty. I had it when ... well, when I was anxious.' Remembering Rose was there I asked, 'What's making you worry?' It was a stupid question, the kind a stupid mother asks of a child whose father has been away for a month. But she was asleep.
Gill the nurse listened to my descriptions of excessive juice drinking, resultant frequent toilet visiting and disturbed nights without interrupting me, but with an expression I couldn't at first decipher. When I finished I realised she was anticipating everything I'd said.
'I've a strong suspicion what caused Rose to collapse,' she said. 'It'll just take a simple blood test to diagnose.'
She nodded. 'Why don't you take a seat and we'll test her now. Then we can either eliminate it or know what we're dealing with. Treatment is simple if we diagnose her.'
I looked over at the bed – Rose, still in her cat costume, looked too small; almost weightless, as though the mattress had swallowed her. When had she shrunk? Was it baby fat she'd lost? Had she lost it because her father was away? Was it the insatiable thirst and constant hunger and excessive napping after school and at the weekend? Or was it me?
'Her dad went to Afghanistan four weeks ago,' I said to Gill. 'Is that why?'
'No, no, this condition – well, it happens out of the blue. It's no one's fault, I assure you.'
I frowned. 'You sound so sure she has ... what is it you think she has?'
'Let's just do the blood test first. Would you like a cup of tea?'
I shook my head. Gill walked away; the back of her dress had creased in a lightning shape.
I sat on a plastic seat between a boy whose nose was split wide, like the pumpkin on our kitchen worktop, and a woman with stitches over her cheek. The automatic doors opened and closed, over and over, admitting the casualties of Halloween.
An old man with a face like crepe paper said to me as he got wheeled past, 'They should all wear short dresses like yours, it'd keep me happy. But not the blood – it's like we're at war again!'
I remembered I was dressed as a zombie nurse, my skirt considerably shorter than the staff's, the fabric made bloody with juice, and my skin whitened with face paint and streaked with crimson lipstick.
I remembered also the candle at home, inside the pumpkin. Had I blown it out? No, I didn't think so. Damn. Would the flame burn through the pumpkin flesh? I should call Jake and tell him to do it.
Of course – he wasn't there. If he were, he'd have been here with us. I thought of calling April, but who has their neighbour's phone number on speed dial? She was pleasant enough and we kept an eye on one another's homes when we were away, but I don't feel I have to befriend people whose only similarity to me is where we live.
I worried about the candle. It saved me thinking about Rose. I closed my eyes a moment to shut out the busy waiting area but couldn't block the noise of doors and trolleys and chatter. Rose would want a book when she woke. She'd search under the pillow, be distressed without it.
I covered my ears and put my chin to my chest; a sort of recovery position. In my head was the sea, swishing and swirling and swilling over bleak stony thoughts. I could smell it again, even here amidst injury and pain.
A hand gently touched my shoulder, and I looked up with a start, expecting to see Gill. Instead I looked into dark eyes; in their mirror I saw the ocean I'd heard in my head and a shape like a tattered boat sail and my own face, but drained of colour, as though I were viewing the images through a black-and-white filter.
I readjusted my focus and took in the whole face. He wore his hair like men in the forties did– swept to one side with gluey pomade and cut short around the ear. A suit with thick lapels kept together by four buttons forming a square was worn over a hand-knitted jumper and striped tie. Two polished medals were pinned to his chest. It was a wartime Halloween costume so authentic he must have borrowed it from an older relative.
'It won't be long,' he said.
He looked a bit like my grandad, seen in old photos. When I was a child, family members used to talk about him. Said he was brave, that he had been awarded medals, and that there was a museum in London with his things in it. Thinking about him used to keep me awake at night – or did it wake me up? I'd hear the sea then, too, and strange voices and accents. I'd smell salt and think he was there at the end of my bed, telling me stories. I never met him properly, not in the flesh. He died long before I even existed. I hadn't thought about him in a long time. Adult life tends to do that – eat up your thinking time, kill your dreams.
'You mustn't be scared,' the stranger said.
'I'm not,' I lied. 'You know, you look like ... well, someone I've only seen pictures of. But it's weird, you're exactly how I'd imagine him if he were alive.' I shrugged, realised I was babbling. 'Your costume's too nice for Halloween. The kids won't know what it is. They're all into wizards.' I paused. 'I hate hospitals.'
'Should be grateful for them.' His accent was beautifully rich Yorkshire, familiar in its flow, like mine only somehow from a time gone by. 'I've a lot to thank hospitals for.'
'No, I hate what they mean. You know, if you're in one it's not good. My little girl ... she ... God ...' I couldn't say anymore.
'She's going to be fine.'
'How can you know that? You can't possibly. It's not normal for a nine-year-old to just collapse, is it? And I should've seen it coming! What kind of mother am I? I should've taken the thirst more seriously. Should've had her at the doctor weeks ago. I thought she was just missing her dad.'
My words ran out and I stopped. Tears built behind my eyes like froth on coke poured too fast – but I wouldn't surrender. If I did I'd be no good to Rose. I tried to apologise for ranting.
'Do you miss her dad too?' The sort-offamiliar stranger held my gaze with what I could only call affection. He seemed too interested in my answer for someone I'd never met before. And yet I didn't mind. In his presence I felt calm and able to be honest. Safe, like in the dark.
Excerpted from How To Be Brave by Louise Beech. Copyright © 2015 Louise Beech. Excerpted by permission of Orenda Books.
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.
Table of Contents
1 A SORT OF RECOVERY POSITION,
2 THE PUMPKINS ARE SLEEPING,
3 FIND THE BOOK,
4 EVERY STORY WRITTEN,
5 LOST-AT-SEA DAUGHTER,
6 A FAIR RATE OF EXCHANGE,
7 ABANDON SHIP,
8 NOBODIES, FLOATING ON OUR BOAT,
9 A SKY FULL OF STARS,
10 SMALL THINGS,
11 MAYBE TODAY A SHIP,
12 COLOURS LIKE THOSE AT SEA,
13 LOOKING FOR THE WRONG THING,
15 FOURTEEN SCARECROWS IN A ROW,
16 NOT DARKEST BEFORE DAWN,
17 HE'LL GET THE CANDLE,
18 OUR OWN SPECIAL GUEST,
19 THEY DIED THAT YOU MIGHT LIVE,
20 HOW TO BE BRAVE,
21 STITCHING TRUTH AND MEMORY,
23 NEW YEAR, NEW BOOK,
24 THE BEAUTY OF ESCAPE,
25 A NEW SNOWFLAKE,
26 GET UP AND KEEP LOOKING,
27 THE LAST SUPPER,
28 TODAY A SHIP,
30 BACK TO THE SEA,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR,