Maria in the Moon

Maria in the Moon

by Louise Beech

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781910633823
Publisher: Orenda Books
Publication date: 04/01/2018
Pages: 276
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.75(h) x (d)

About the Author

Louise Beech is an exceptional literary talent, whose debut novel How To Be Brave was a Guardian Readers’ Choice for 2015. The follow-up, The Mountain in My Shoe was shortlisted for Not the Booker Prize. Both of her previous books Maria in the Moon and The Lion Tamer Who Lost were widely reviewed, critically acclaimed and number-one bestsellers on Kindle. The Lion Tamer Who Lost was shortlisted for the RNA Most Popular Romantic Novel Award in 2019. 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. Louise lives with her husband on the outskirts of Hull, and loves her job as a Front of House Usher at Hull Truck Theatre, where her first play was performed in 2012.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

Pure Mary

Long ago my beloved Nanny Eve chose my name.

When she called me it in her sing-song voice, I felt as lovely as the shimmering Virgin Mary statue on the bureau in her hallway. When I went for Sunday lunch, I'd sneak away from the table while everyone ate lemon meringue pie and I'd stroke Mary's vibrant blue dress. Then, listening for adults approaching the door, I'd kiss her peeking-out feet – very carefully so that I didn't knock her over.

I didn't want to break her. Not because I knew my mother would send me to bed without supper. Not because I knew I'd be reminded of my clumsiness for weeks after. But because Nanny Eve was given Virgin Mary by her own mother, and she loved it dearly. She would whisper to me that 'virgin' meant 'pure'. Pure Mary. Some of the letters in Mary were like those in my middle name.

But that was all we shared.

She was perfect, whereas I was always in bother. I'd try to imagine how nice it would be to shine so brightly and to not have fingers that got smacked for messing up clean windows. I'd hiss in Pure Mary's ear that when I got older I'd have a statue in my house and polish her with a special cloth, just like Nanny Eve polished all her special ornaments.

After the Sunday lunch pots had been washed, I'd slip into the living room and sit at Nanny Eve's feet. She'd always hum the same tune, and I'd know that meant I made her happy. Patting my head, she would say my long, sing-song name, and then she'd get on with her knitting – hats for relatives and coats for my small dolls, and while she did it, she'd tell me about her friends and church and the poor. And then she'd sing again, and the sun would break through her lattice window and land on our two curly heads.

But one day she stopped singing.

She stopped calling me the long, pretty name she'd chosen when I arrived.

I try now to remember why, but I just can't.

I think it was winter; I think the sun no longer had the strength to kiss our heads.

I know I'd accidentally smashed the Virgin Mary.

Utterly unfixable, she had been replaced with a pink plastic lady whose long, spiky eyelashes and crimson lips didn't call to me. Nanny Eve never polished her.

But there was something else; something I couldn't remember. Something as black as feverish, temperature-fuelled nightmares. Something that couldn't be fixed or replaced. Something that stopped all the singing in our house for a long time. But when I try to think of it, all I can see are the shattered porcelain pieces of Pure Mary spread across the floor.

Now I'm the one who chooses the names. I give people longer, different and more quirky ones. Whatever they're really called doesn't matter to me. I'll shorten them, or lengthen them, sometimes switch the letters around, or add a Y. Change them altogether.

Anything that means I've taken the word apart and made it whole again. Anything that might help me remember why my name got smashed up with Pure Mary all those years ago.

CHAPTER 2

An i causes chaos 'So which name will you choose?' he asked.

'Katrina,' I said.

'Katrina?'

I pointed at a faded newspaper on the coffee table – at the headline that read 'Hurricane Katrina Hits' and the picture of the devastation it had caused: black, white and grey chaos. The column alongside had a colour picture of Paris Hilton emerging from a car, her silver dress blinking in the flashlights and visible crotch discoloured by a ring of coffee.

'Good choice,' said Norman, his eyes still on the stain. 'Memorable. We're off to a great start, Katrina.'

In this airless room of telephones, notepads and mismatched chairs, Norman would decide if I could stay; if I could be a volunteer. I imagined other interviewees might feel possessive about their names, might argue that they couldn't answer to anything else. Our first names are the one constant in our lives, travelling with us wherever we go, stamped in black on our passports and credit cards and driving licences. But I liked the idea of choosing who I could be; of starting anew.

'We change them so we're unique,' Norman said. 'So we're easily identified for an urgent call.'

'Suits me,' I said, and wanted to add: I rarely call people by their given name.

I'd only known Norman's for fifteen minutes and wondered why he'd chosen one that evoked a psychotic serial killer. Perhaps his real name was in honour of a long-dead relative. He wore a red T-shirt with Sesame Street's Bert and Ernie on the front; their faces creased when he reached for the file bearing the name everyone calls me. A photo of my sullen face was stapled to the top by my furrowed forehead.

'I'm the only Norman here so I got to keep my name,' he said.

So he hadn't picked it – his parents had, many years before.

'Some volunteers choose a relative or family pet's name. Some opt for a film star; although callers might not take a Joaquin too seriously.'

'Especially if they're speaking to a female,' I said.

'Quite.' He stirred his coffee and tapped the spoon on the rim of his mug before placing it on the desk, parallel to my folder. 'We don't want names to eclipse why we're here. Take you, Catherine. We already have a Cathryn but she doesn't have an i in her name. On paper we could differentiate between you, but on the phone – well, imagine the confusion!' Norman held his hands in the air to animate the chaos my name with its i might cause.

Behind him was a sash window, with one shutter hanging perilously by a single hinge and the other fastened across the glass, giving a half-view of the street: overgrown gardens dusted with snow; fat hedges and fir trees.

'We also have a Jane who's the only one,' he said. 'Chris number two we call Christopher. Sam is really Sam, but Paul is Al because we had another Paul who left after his leg never healed. You see?'

'Um, maybe,' I mumbled.

'Flood Crisis is about sacrifice,' he said. 'And it starts with our names.'

The area behind us looked popular: colourful chairs and beanbags surrounded a centrally placed, stubby Formica table. Much-thumbed magazines covered its scratched surface, and on top a Barbara Cartland novel lay face down, as though she was burying her head in shame at a bad review.

'So, were you flooded?' Norman asked. It was the question we all asked one another. It had replaced enquiring after health or families.

'Yes,' I said.

'Is that why you volunteered?'

'No.'

It wasn't, not really. It was because of a flyer; and a child's slipper. I'd been buying wine in a supermarket and found a tiny silver shoe in my trolley, utterly at odds with my other items. When I went to hand it in at the customer service desk, the Flood Crisis flyer fluttered into my trolley, landing next to the slipper. The young girl on the desk said, 'There's a sign from above if ever I saw one.'

I'd buried it at the bottom of my bag beneath tissues and tampons. But the image of the slipper had kept me awake and had somehow become intertwined with the flyer. Was some child crying for her favourite star-coloured shoe; was she in a strange bedroom after her family home had flooded? Did she wander the new place, one foot cold and bare? Only when I called the number on the Flood Crisis flyer and asked for an interview did I sleep properly again.

Now here I was, ready to volunteer, despite it being only months since I'd walked out of a similar crisis centre. I felt destined to be here; not because I'd been flooded or because I'd done similar work before, and not because of the slipper either; but because of the name-changing.

Norman stopped playing with my folder and put it on top of the others. His fingers tapped the desk. Hands fascinate me; his were as slender as an anorexic woman's. I looked at my own red-raw fingers and resisted scratching them.

'Tell me about when you were flooded.'

'It was crap.'

'Crap?' Norman stared at my chest a moment before snapping back to my face.

I should have offered more. I was going to be taking calls from those who'd endured the same downpour, but 'crap' was all I had.

None of us had expected the rain. One weather report called it a freak event. Some said it was biblical. Climate change. Punishment. Atonement. Whatever had caused it, at the end of June 2007 it rained for two days. Relentless, like someone had left the taps on full. Water filled gardens, cars and houses. Hull had been labelled the forgotten city. It received the least government help and featured in few headlines. But our people came together. We carried one another's sofas upstairs and shared sandbags, towels and stories.

'Crap' was an apt word.

'Shall I tell you more about us, then?' Norman asked.

'Yes, do,' I said.

I uncrossed my legs and put my bag under the plastic chair. Interviews always make me fidget. The movement knocked off a shoe and it landed near Norman's foot with a rude clomp. I'd borrowed some too-big red wedges from my flat-mate, Fern. I fumbled it back on.

'We started two months after the flood,' he explained. 'We were six volunteers, now we're thirty-odd. Not many compared with the big places, but we put the time in. Other helplines were swamped after the rain, so something devoted entirely to flood victims was urgently needed.'

I nodded at Norman several times and wondered if the walls were painted school-PE-shorts-blue to create calm. The shade was at odds with the paisley sofa, velvet chairs and orange cushions. Norman's voice droned on, as irritating as a wasp in a bedroom.

'The rain caused all sorts of problems.' He slurped his coffee. 'People clearing out their ruined belongings remembered things long buried: affairs, given-up babies, secret abortions. We hear these stories every day.'

The Flood Crisis sign above the window seemed unnecessary. Someone had agreed with me – they'd made an O into a lake and drawn a headless, drowning stickman. Next to his body they'd written, 'I've eaten my own head.'

'It's like the water stripped the victims of their inhibitions,' Norman went on. 'The floodgates have opened and everything is being washed out.'

'Like my drawer,' I said.

'Your drawer?'

'There are two drawers in my kitchen,' I explained, moving my hand as though opening one. 'They meet at a corner. When one is open, I can't open the other. They can never both be open. No, wait, that's theopposite of the flood bringing old hurts to the surface. Sorry. It was a stupid metaphor.'

Norman stared at me until I looked down at the black skirt I'd thought suitable for a crisis-line interview and the streaky fake tan I'd hastily applied because my only tights were laddered.

'We're here to do the clean-up,' said Norman.

A steam trains calendar hung above his desk. November belonged to a burgundy one with gold lettering. It would be Jane's birthday in two weeks, the day after mine. Then Ed would celebrate forty, but, judging by the sad face drawn there, he wasn't excited about it.

Dates stay in my head, stuck like superglued post-it notes. I've a curious knack for remembering birthdays. Friends tell me theirs just once and I remember long after they've departed my life. I wake in a morning and look at the date and think of Barry or Anna or Rebecca.

'How did you feel when your home was destroyed?' Norman asked.

I returned my attention to him. 'Pissed off,' I said. 'I'd just had Marilyn Monroe's face painted on my living-room wall. Looks like Billy Idol now.'

Norman ran his skinny fingers through his hair. 'You really think this is the place for you?' 'I used to love volunteering.'

'You did?'

I knew I didn't appear the best applicant for a role that involved compassion. My mother regularly begged me to stop scowling, especially since I was nearly thirty-one and time was apparently no longer on my side. 'Wrinkles love frowners,' she often said, 'but men don't.'

'Yes,' I offered, more gently. 'I loved Crisis Care more than anything I've ever done. I was there five months.' I picked at the eczema between my fingers. 'I never missed a shift, never arrived late. I covered for other people, turned up when I was ill.'

Norman opened my folder. 'Can I ask why you left?'

He could ask, but I wasn't sure of the answer. It was easier asking questions. It occurred to me that that might be the attraction. Why I was here again, hoping to answer the phones. Perhaps listening to others struggling with their issues meant I could ignore my own.

Norman's phone flashed, saving me. 'I'll let the machine get it,' he said. 'We're not open for twenty minutes. But Jane and Christopher will be here soon so we'd best crack on. Where was I?'

'Telling me about Flood Crisis,' I said.

He drained his coffee. 'We need people who've already worked on a crisis line. We don't have the funding for weeks of training and we don't know how long we'll be here.'

'And what do you offer callers?' I asked.

'Some of them call to talk about the rain. Others tell us things they'd never dream of sharing with Crisis Care; I think they find it easier because we're not officially a depression helpline.'

I glanced at the corner where two glass and plywood booths with pink inner walls looked like wombs; placenta wires snaked along the desks to black telephones that waited for life. I'd answered such phones before. I'd filled notepads with doodles and exclamation marks and words I'd never say to anyone else.

'Which days can you do?'

'Monday and Wednesday,' I said.

'We're open five days. Sex Addicts R Us use the place on Monday, and there are two Slim & Trim sessions on Friday. Would you be interested?'

'No thanks,' I said. 'Throwing up is easier.'

Norman scribbled something in my folder.

'I was joking,' I said.

'So you can do Wednesday?' he asked without looking up.

'Maybe an occasional Sunday.' I almost added 'unless I get any better offers' but played with the frayed stitching on my bag instead. The silver nail polish Fern had applied three days ago was chipped.

'There's no training?' I asked.

'We brush up on skills and active listening. Why do you do it?'

I wondered for a moment if Norman was referring to my picking at the seam on the bag.

'Why helplines?' He stopped writing. 'There are easier ways to help others. Standing behind the counter in a charity shop or filling an envelope with your loose change. Handing out leaflets dressed up as a teddy bear ...'

'Teddy bear suits make me itch,' I said.

Norman studied me. His eyes were grey, like ash.

I searched for answers. 'These are real people. It's not like watching a TV show. The callers' troubles make mine less, somehow.'

'And how do you handle yours?' Norman put his pen into a red cup with a host of others and swivelled the chair to face me, his knee only inches from mine.

'I don't have any,' I said.

A bit of rubbish blew against the windowpane and stuck there for a moment. Someone's letter. Only the words 'FINAL CHANCE' were visible; then it blew away.

'We all have problems,' said Norman softly. 'They must have asked you about them in your Crisis Care interview – I needed a stiff drink after mine, I can tell you. We all cope in some way.'

'I have sex with strangers,' I said, immediately regretting it.

'You make jokes,' said Norman. 'It's a common coping mechanism.'

An ambulance wailed in the distance. Like an echo. Then the doorbell chimed.

'That'll be the next shift.' Norman stretched. 'Christopher and Jane are here until ten.' He pressed a buzzer and on the TV monitor above the door I saw a tall man push a bike into the hallway. "We buzz each other in if we're here. Otherwise there's a door code, so remind me in case I let you go without it."

On the black-and-white screen, I watched the tall man shove his bike into a gap between the stairs and the wall, remove a rucksack from the basket, hang his jacket up and head for our door. He looked just as two-coloured when he walked into the full-colour reality of the room, his black hair cut short at the sides, but with a longer, floppy fringe, grey T-shirt and dark jeans.

'Hi Christopher,' said Norman. 'Must've been bloody cold on your bike.'

'Never noticed,' he said. 'Music.' A wire and earpiece still dangled around his neck like a miniature noose.

'This is Katrina. She'll be starting soon.'

For a second I wondered whom he was referring to. And then I remembered my new name; Katrina. I smiled. Wanted to whisper it aloud, test it.

'Hey Katrina.' Christopher plonked the rucksack by Norman's desk and untangled his wire.

'You're the Christopher Chris then,' I said.

He smiled and his face changed, like he'd taken Prozac and it had just kicked in. No longer black and white, his blue eyes crinkled with the laugh. 'Only my mum calls me Christopher; actually she calls everyone Christopher.'

I wondered if he had a middle name that no one called him.

'Katrina,' he said. 'Like the hurricane.'

The buzzer sounded again and a dainty woman came in, perhaps late thirties, with two carrier bags, a box of biscuits and a packet of crisps. Her hair had been cut into a sharp red bob that clashed with her green eye shadow; her hands were like porcelain. I eyed them with envy.

'You staying for the week?' Christopher asked her.

She hung her tasselled jacket on a chair. 'Another bus route cancelled. Travellers should be informed before they leave home, via that Twitter thing or text. This is the modern age after all.'

(Continues…)



Excerpted from "Maria In The Moon"
by .
Copyright © 2017 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

Title Page,
Dedication,
Epigraph,
1: Pure Mary,
2: An i causes chaos,
3: Everything can be replaced,
4: Another seventy candles,
5: Memory with no rhythm,
6: The first phone call,
7: Enduring trifle and peas,
8: Dad's protective cloak,
9: Losing with four aces,
10: The weight of words,
11: Girl in a red dress,
12: Sweet milk gone sour,
13: All birthdays are not equal,
14: Never about the trees,
15: Not love unless it hurts,
16: Allergic to lemon meringue,
17: Writing words in the air,
18: A hospital visit,
19: Two sixes at Santa's feet,
20: Knowing all the words,
21: Maria in the moon,
22: Nothing's unfixable,
23: Footprints in the snow,
24: Learning from Fern,
25: Editing out the wrong words,
26: Keeping the ghosts away,
27: A snowy funeral,
28: Choosing the best words,
Acknowledgements,
About the Author,
Copyright,

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