The Facts of Life and Death

The Facts of Life and Death

by Belinda Bauer

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802126849
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 04/11/2017
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 366
Sales rank: 1,084,911
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Belinda Bauer is the author of seven award-winning novels which have been translated into twenty-one languages. She won the Crime Writers’ Association’s Gold Dagger Award for Crime Novel of the Year for Blacklands , the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award for Rubbernecker , and the CWA Dagger in the Library Award for outstanding body of work. She lives in Wales.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

It hadn't stopped raining all summer, and the narrow stream that divided Limeburn ran deeper than Ruby Trick had seen it in all of the ten years she'd been alive.

The ditch that marked the crease in the gorge usually held a foot of tumbling, tuneful water. Enough to wet your knees but not your knickers.

But this summer was different. This summer, the sun had only shone apologetically through short gaps in the dirty Devonshire clouds, and the stream was fast and deep and dark. And although Adam Braund could still jump from one mossy bank to the other if he had a run up, the children all gathered to watch him now because if he fell in, it was just possible that he might drown.

The lane that rose a steep, curling mile through the forest to the main road was always mirrored with wet, while the cobbles between the cottages closest to the slipway had never lost their green winter sheen. The trees that threatened to push Limeburn's twenty-odd houses into the greedy sea below never dried out. Leaves dripped even when the sky did not; the stream spewed from the cliff face like a fire hose, and the steep dirt footpaths that escaped Limeburn through the woods were nothing but lethal slides.

Not that that stopped anyone, of course.

There were only five children in the village so they were forced to be playmates, just as they were forced to live in this dank place that smelled of kelp.

Chris Braund was the eldest at thirteen. His brother Adam was a year younger, but a year taller. The Braunds were descended from Armada sailors washed ashore, and they all looked like gypsies. Then there was Ruby with her shock of red hair. After her came seven-year-old Maggie Beer and her two-year-old sister, Em, who slowed them all down. Both were stick thin and see-through pale. Maggie had to linger for Em, the boys went on ahead, while Ruby was always left somewhere in the middle.

To the west they were allowed to climb the path through the forest to the stone stile. In a small clearing there, a bench on the cliff looked out through a leafy frame and over the black pebble beach to the Gore. The Gore was a slim, flat spit that jutted a hundred yards into the waves before turning abruptly and stopping. It was said that the Devil had tried to build a bridge across to Lundy Island, but had been thwarted when his shovel broke.

Ruby didn't like the Gore or the story.

They made her wonder where the Devil was now.

Hanging from an ancient oak beside the bench was a loop of fraying rope where they could swing – if they wanted to burn their palms and fall in the mud. Still, they did swing more often than not, because that was all there was to do.

Sometimes Chris and Adam climbed over the stile and went on up the pathway. 'All the way to Clovelly!' Chris had boasted on several occasions, but when Ruby had asked him to bring her back a toy donkey from the visitor centre, he said they'd run out.

Ruby never went past the stile. 'That far and no further,' her mother had warned her. That was partly why. The other part was that, even on a sunny day, the woods beyond the stile were too dark and too quiet – a tunnel of green with the threat of the unseen drop on one side, and tangled undergrowth rising on the other. The pixies in the woods would lead you in circles – even right off the cliff – if they could. You'd have to turn your coat inside out to keep them away.

At the foot of the Clovelly path was a small stone beehive-shaped hut. They didn't know what the hut was supposed to be for, but they called it the Bear Den because even in the dry it smelled like bears. The children took turns to squeeze through the tiny door and sit in the dark with their knees tucked under their chins for as long as they could stand it.

Adam held the record, which was ages.

To the east, the Peppercombe path was even steeper – a switchback of mud and wooden planking in a makeshift staircase between clinging brambles.

Halfway up was the haunted house where they weren't allowed to go. They spent much of their time there, picking among the cinders in the fireplaces and knocking glass from the empty windows at low tide, to hear it tinkle on the wet pebbles a hundred feet below. Each year the worm-chewed floor jutted out further and further over the disintegrating drop. There was one place where Ruby could lie with her eye to a knothole in the floor, where there was nothing between her and the dark grey sea.

It was like flying.

Or falling.

Ruby Trick lived in a tiny two-bedroomed cottage called The Retreat. It was owned by a family in London who had bought it and named it and then found it was too distant, too dreary, too damp to retreat to – even just once a summer – and had rented it out until they could sell at a profit.

That was never going to happen. The Retreat would cost less to demolish and rebuild than it would to repair. Ruby's father, John Trick, hammered bits of scrap wood into draughty window frames, and slapped filler at the widening cracks in the walls, but each year The Retreat fought a losing battle against nature.

The forest didn't want them there – that was plain to Ruby. While Clovelly kept it at bay with size and industry – and, ultimately, brute tourism – Limeburn was just in its way. The stream and the road and the thin line of houses were never going to be enough to keep the trees on this side of the coombe joining the trees on that side. It was only a matter of time. The advance party was already established. Ferns sprouted from stone walls like little green starfish, while rhododendrons and hydrangeas crowded back doors and shrouded rear windows. And, even as the trees surrendered their branches to loppers and chainsaws, so they tunnelled sly roots under enemy lines, breaking through pipes, loosening foundations and shifting walls out of true. In Rock Cottage the living-room floor had bulged and finally splintered to reveal a root of oak as thick as a man's leg. They'd all been in to look, and to help old Mrs Vanstone rearrange the furniture around it.

John Trick always said there were some things you just couldn't stop. Already the houses further up the hill had been swallowed by the forest, their stone hearths now washed with rain, and home only to spiders and bloated toads, while the houses that were left had nowhere to go but the sea, which gouged relentlessly at the cliff beneath them.

The long, curved slipway tempted the water up into the village, and sometimes it came. During spring tides and storms, sandbags were packed tight behind wooden slides in the doorways, and people took their heirlooms and TVs up to bed with them, just in case.

By day, it was easy to forget that the trees and the ocean were lying in wait. By day the children played in the woods and stepped gingerly across the giant pebbles on the beach to paddle in the rockpools.

But by night Ruby could feel the tides tugging at her belly, while the forest tested The Retreat, squealing against the glass and tapping on the tiles.

And she wondered what it would be like – when the outside finally broke in.

CHAPTER 2

John Trick drove them up to the main road to get the bus – Ruby to Bideford, her mother only as far as the hotel, from where she brought home leftovers so good that Ruby would sometimes get up in the middle of the night to finish them off.

Their car, once white, was now frilled with rust. The car seemed to hate them as much as the forest did, and sometimes wouldn't start. When it did, it coughed and jerked all the way up the winding mile.

The hill from Limeburn to the main road was like a ride. Ruby had been to the fair once in Bideford. The rollercoaster had been small, but big enough to frighten her, and it had started like this – with a grindingly slow pull up an incline that had looked like nothing from the queue, but which had felt so steep once she was in the little cart that she'd thought she might flip over backwards.

They were always tense in the car – waiting for it to fail. Her father hunched over the wheel, her mother gripped her bag in her lap, while Ruby's fingers ached, she clutched the headrest so tight. They all leaned forward, as if it would help, as the car lurched in bad gears around hairpins, under the murky canopy of green.

Halfway up was a stable made from an old railway carriage, and a tiny paddock of mud. There was never anything in there, but Ruby always looked.

'That's where I'll keep my horse,' she said five times a week.

'What will you call it?' her father always asked.

'Depends,' Ruby idled, 'on its colour and nature.'

'What if it has a name already?' asked her mother. 'You can't change it.'

Ruby frowned. She hadn't thought of that.

'She can call it anything she likes, can't you, Rubes?' said her father in the mirror. Then he shook his head and murmured, 'Spoilsport.'

Ruby liked it when Daddy told Mummy off. Mummy was too big for her boots, with her fancy job at the hotel and her fancy chef's uniform. Showing off – that's what Daddy called it.

They passed the stone chapel where thick ivy knitted the graves together, then surfaced from the cover of trees into daylight, next to the little shop where Ruby spent her pocket money. There was a sign that promised ice cream – although the freezer was always full of fish fingers and frozen peas – and a wire cage by the door that held a local newspaper headline to the wall. It changed once a week, or whenever Mr Preece remembered to do it. Today there was a flood threat to 1000 homes.

The car juddered to a halt and they clambered out. Ruby had to wait for Mummy to get out because there were only two doors. She could see a small knot of children already at the stop. They were divided between above-the-hills, who came from the clifftop farms and hamlets, and below-the-hills, from the beaches and the forest. Aboves had wifi and ponies; belows piled sandbags in their doorways against high tides, and their hair was always matted with salt.

Before she closed the door, Mummy bent down to look back into the car. 'Could you try to see about the bathroom window, John?' Ruby rolled her eyes. Mummy was always going on and on about the window! Why didn't she fix it herself if she was so bothered?

'If I get time,' said Daddy.

'What else do you have to do?' said Mummy, and Daddy leaned over and pulled the door shut. Then he turned the car round in a jerky circle, and sank beneath the trees.

The above-the-hill kids waited for her mother to get off the bus before they called Ruby 'fat bitch' and 'ginger minger', and stepped on her black shoes and white socks until they were good and muddy.

* * *

John Trick was twenty-nine and had not worked for three years.

He used to do welding at the shipyard, and when there was no welding he'd done scaffolding, and when there was no scaffolding he'd done labouring, and when there was no labouring, he'd started to do nothing at all.

Then he had done nothing at all for so long that he'd gradually adjusted, until nothing had become the new something.

The new something was the drive up the hill and back and breakfast in front of the TV. It was combing the beach for driftwood, and surprising limpets for bait. It was a six-pack of Strongbow cooling in a rockpool, and pissing in the sea like a castaway.

After a while, he wondered how he'd ever found time for a job.

And on days like this, that suited him just fine. The morning rain had stopped and the cloud had thinned so that it only diluted the sunshine, rather than blocking it out completely – a reminder that, somewhere up there, summer was as it should be. The sheltered cove was always warmer than the clifftops, and the moisture was already leaving the land for the sky again in steamy wisps.

Through cheap earpieces, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson sang to him of real men and the women who'd wronged them. Sometimes – when the wind was up – he'd join in.

Short snatches of songs carried off on the spume.

He had collected half a dozen limpets and now dug one out of its shell with his penknife and put it on the hook. The outer flesh was tough, and the creature pulsed in his fingers as he threaded it over the barbs.

He cast and felt the weight touch the bottom, then he took up the tension on the line, and settled back into his old nylon camping chair.

John fished mostly at the Gut – a squareish wound blown out of the rock with gunpowder two hundred years before, so that ships could land their cargoes of lime and anthracite. The kilns where the lime had been burned were still there, built into the sea wall either side of the slipway – fortress-like stone ovens forty feet high that were now occupied by rats and by gulls, and so acrid with the shit of both that not even the children played there.

Mackerel was his most common catch, with whiting a close second. Both were good enough eating, and if he bothered to pick his slippery way to the end of the Gore, he could catch eels as long as his arm, and dogfish. Rock salmon, they were called in fancy restaurants, and sometimes Alison rang Mr Littlejohn at the hotel and he'd say yes or no. If he said yes, he gave Trick a tenner a fish. Then cut them into eight thick steaks that he sold for twenty quid a time.

John snorted around his roll-up. A hundred and sixty quid for a fish he caught and his wife cooked. He failed to see how Mr Littlejohn could sleep at night, for the thieving old bastard he was.

He could have sold the dogfish to the Red Lion in Clovelly, of course, but he never went to Clovelly, even though he could see it from here, across the shallow curve of the bay. Clovelly was the favoured brother to Limeburn's runt, and nobody in either village ever forgot it.

The fluorescent end of the fishing rod shivered, and he tensed, ready for action. But the tip pinged back into position, pointing skywards with a trembling finger.

John subsided.

Bloody crabs.

Sometimes he would reel in and check the bait and cast again somewhere else, but it seemed like a lot of work when the air was so warm and the cider so cool.

He closed his eyes and waited.

He slept.

* * *

That night the window row began again. First the window, then how much the new tyre on the car had cost, then the mess Daddy had made cleaning the fish in the sink. Ruby went into the other room before it could get to the job.

Wherever the row started, it always ended up at the job.

It got there without her.

CHAPTER 3

Miss Sharpe wrote two words on the whiteboard and Ruby copied them carefully on to the cover of a brand-new blue exercise book.

My Dairy.

'You should write in your diaries every day,' said Miss Sharpe, to groans from the boys. She put down the marker pen and walked up and down between the desks. Ruby liked it when Miss Sharpe walked about, because it made it harder for Essie Littlejohn to poke her with a pencil. Essie's daddy owned the hotel where Mummy worked and Ruby hated her, with her big ears and her good crayons and her fancy mains gas.

'All the things you do, and the thoughts you have,' Miss Sharpe continued. 'All your secret dreams and plans for the future.'

Ruby noticed that she had pale pearl varnish on her short nails. Ruby wasn't allowed to paint her nails because only slags painted their nails, but Miss Sharpe didn't look like a slag. She had ugly brown hair and no make-up, and her only jewellery was a bracelet that tinkled with charms, including a little silver horseshoe. Ruby liked the horseshoe, and – by extension – Miss Sharpe, so she didn't see how Miss Sharpe could be a slag. Maybe nail polish was only slaggy if it was a French manicure, like the girls from the college, who smoked on the bus.

Miss Sharpe saw Ruby looking at the charms and smiled her lopsided smile. She had only been here since the beginning of term, so she hadn't had time to get miserable yet.

David Leather put up his hand and asked if he could write about his milk-bottle collection and Shawn Loosemore asked if he could write about smashing up David Leather's milk-bottle collection, and everyone laughed – apart from David and Miss Sharpe, who had to clap her hands to make them all be quiet.

'Of course, David. Hobbies, or what you did at the weekend, or what you want for your birthday, or your pets. It will be like Facebook, but just for 5B. Then,' she said, 'those who want to can read their diaries out in class, and we'll be able learn about each other's —'

The bell rang and Miss Sharpe had to raise her voice over the scraping chairs.

'— everyday lives! Have a lovely weekend everybody!'

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "The Facts of Life and Death"
by .
Copyright © 2014 Belinda Bauer.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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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