The Gospel According to Cane

The Gospel According to Cane

by Courttia Newland


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781617751332
Publisher: Akashic Books
Publication date: 02/05/2013
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Courttia Newland’s first novel, The Scholar, was published in 1997. Further critically acclaimed work includes Society Within (1999), Snakeskin (2002), The Dying Wish (2006), Music for the Off-Key (2006), and A Book of Blues (2011). He is coeditor of IC3: The Penguin Book of New Black Writing in Britain (2000) and has short stories featured in many anthologies. He was nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the CWA Dagger in the Library Award, the Alfred Fagon Award, and the Frank O’Connor Award. His latest anthology, coedited with Monique Roffey, is Tell Tales 4: The Global Village.

Read an Excerpt


By Courttia Newland

Akashic Books

Copyright © 2013 Courttia Newland
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61775-133-2

Chapter One

I write, therefore I am.

* * *

Some people say pain is relative. They claim an earache, a bumped funny bone, and a broken leg can all be excruciating or no more than a tickle according to the subject's threshold. I happen to disagree, at least beyond a certain point. For me, there is some pain that has the capacity to hurt anyone. An amputation with or without anesthetic, for instance, or a bullet in the chest. Pain of that nature is tangible even though it can't be seen, like the presence of oxygen. Pain that fervent is beyond refute.

* * *

I first noticed him in Portobello Market, on a Thursday if I recall. It was one of those balmy afternoons of mid-September we get these days, nothing like summer but warm enough to wear a thin dress and cardie, not worry about a jacket. I was having a nice time actually. I'd spent the day in Holland Park with one of my neighbors, a local old girl called Ida. We'd sat in the café for hours drinking coffee and talking about absolutely nothing. I went for a wander and a read in the Japanese Garden before I took a slow walk, stopping briefly to admire the peacocks and rabbits. I strolled down Notting Hill and made a right turn, which led me into the market. I was walking pretty fast once I got there, trying not to talk with too many people, buying fruit from the organic stalls beneath Portobello Green, nothing substantial, as Abel and Cole had made a delivery. I was browsing really, enjoying the sun on my back. And then I saw him.

He was standing next to the green doors of the office units under the motorway. A tall boy, though it was immediately apparent he was more like a young man than a child. His shoulders were wide beneath his black hoodie, and his face had none of the puppy fat associated with younger children, the ones I was used to teaching, or trying to teach at least. The loose wisps of a beard he'd tried to grow with mild success, cotton candy on his cheeks rather than peach fuzz, told me how much of a man he actually was. For the millionth time I found myself thinking how my own child would have looked after all these years, and then I turned, not wanting to follow the thought to its obvious conclusion.

I ducked my head to examine a solid mango, yellow and green with a red blush. When I chanced a look upward, the young man was boring into my eyes. I'd seen that look before. The young people in the After-School Club would often stare at each other that way, sometimes even me. I tried to tell them it never would have been accepted back home, where our kin had been born, either Africa or the West Indies depending on the child. A look like that would have been slapped from our faces. Maybe that was part of the trouble.

Obviously, I couldn't say anything like that. You can't tell young people what you think of their behavior if you haven't known them since they were toddlers, and even then you keep a close eye on your tongue. Knives and guns are commonplace, and there are even local stories of people being shot for asking the young not to smoke in a public space. So I tried not to get too upset when I saw the tall youth stare, even though I was nervous. I steeled myself and looked him in the eye as if to challenge him physically rather than verbally, to remind him of his mother and make him think twice. When he remained that way, lounged against the wall with his lip curled as if to say he didn't give a damn who saw him, I was struck by the horrid thought that it might be lust, rather than anger, that drove him. All right, he wasn't winking, or giving any signs of a come-on, or being the least bit amorous, but he wasn't acting in a threatening manner, or saying anything, or coming over either. The more I thought about it, the more I ducked my head and looked away before snatching another quick glance, the more that curled lip reminded me of someone trying to smile who didn't quite know how. That scared me even more than if he'd been swearing.

I put down my blushing mango and walked away with my head down, trying to be casual and not stumble. Someone called my name, but I ignored whoever it was and kept going, across one road, down a block, a right turn at the corner off-license which took me away from the market and into a residential area just past the estate. I didn't look back and didn't run. I kept my eyes on the pavement and watched my feet move. I cut through the first estate block, turned right, took a left onto Goldbourne. When I smelled coffee and saw the gathered Moroccan men outside market stalls, the out-of-town shoppers, and kids coming home from school chirping like morning birds, I breathed a sigh of relief. Nothing to worry about. I took a look, just to make sure.

He was there. Leaning against another wall, watching me breathe in the atmosphere. I almost jumped when I noticed, couldn't hide my panic. I began to walk again, faster this time.

I'd been a bit clever, grateful for the brains my late father passed on. My flat was actually one street behind me. Once on Goldbourne, shielded by numerous people enjoying the late-afternoon sun, I sprinted back down the next street, going in a rough square until I was on the mouth of my road, breathing hard. Thank goodness I didn't smoke anymore. I took a quick check to make sure he wasn't behind me, and then forced another sprint out of my weary legs, along the cul-de-sac, jangling keys like a jailer. My hands were shaking. My heart was thudding in my chest.

Just before I entered, I took another look. The street was a barren land. I slammed the door.

* * *

Things that keep me going:

• My journal

• Seth

• The After-School Club

• Hope

Damn. That's pitiful.

• Jackie and Frank (?)

Even worse.

* * *

A friend of mine, Keith, back when I was in Teacher Training College, came into class one day wincing and holding his jaw. He shuddered through our morning lecture, knocking back aspirins and taking gulps from his plastic cup of water as often as the directions would allow. After class, he told me he had a rotten back tooth, had booked an afternoon appointment at the dentist's. I was amazed he'd even come to class, let alone decided to have his tooth out on the same day. He was hoping to get someone to go with him, as his brother had said he would, but couldn't make it because of a job interview. Before I said yes, he warned that he'd opted to have the extraction done without a shot. Being a black belt in tae kwon do, in training since his teens, Keith said he could conquer pain.

I didn't really want to go. I had hours of study to catch up on, but we were such good friends that Keith already knew my timetable, so he also knew I was free for the rest of that day. When we got there, my hands were shaking and my bangles tinkled like wind chimes. I thought it would be a simple matter of sitting in the waiting room and reading Best magazine until Keith came out, woozy and proud. I'd congratulate him and we'd leave, that would be it.

Keith was his usual self, way too friendly, cracking bad jokes with everyone in the waiting room. When they called his name, some dizzy receptionist said they didn't normally allow it, but it would be fine if his girlfriend went through, and the dentist smiled and beckoned, and I tried to protest and tell them I'd stay and read about the woman's sister who slept with her husband while she was sick in hospital with cancer, but it never came out with quite the strength I wanted. Next thing I knew, they were gone.

They made me sit on a little chair in the corner of the tiny room. There were posters of assorted Mr. Men with toothaches and bandaged jaws, and Superman X-raying the lungs of a smoker. The room smelled of chemicals and that pink liquid they make you wash your mouth out with. Keith climbed into the chair and they asked him once again if he was fine to do the extraction without a shot, and he said yes, it was no problem, he'd been trained. The assistant started up the suction gun, put it in Keith's mouth. His hands were practically bone white they were clutching the armrests so hard. I couldn't look, but I couldn't close my ears either.

I won't go into exactly what I heard, but suffice to say there was an awful scrape of metal against enamel that instantly made me want to cry, and of course Keith's screams, which only came about halfway when he couldn't take anymore, and it was too late to go back and give him the dose, so they just had to carry on until he was bellowing like a bull who'd been stuck by the matador, and when I looked down I was horrified to see blood and slivers of Keith's brown tooth peppering the plastic tunic they'd given me. His arms weren't clutching the armrests by then, they were trying against his own will to fight what was happening, to stop the dentist. Once his leg involuntarily lashed out and kicked the assistant, who was dripping sweat, face completely white, and the dentist said Keith was lucky it hadn't been him or else he would have drilled through his cheek or somewhere worse. There was muffled swearing and grunts, sometimes from the dentist, most of the time from Keith. It went on for half an hour or more. I would have left but my legs didn't have any strength to carry me and I knew that if I got up I would faint. Eventually there was a tug from the dentist, a plink, and the offending tooth was lying in a kidney-shaped tray, glistening like rotten wood. There was blood too, but I didn't peer into the tray long enough to say what that looked like.

The dentist told Keith they would go ahead with his stitches. That was my cue. I stumbled into the waiting room, where the few people still there stared. The dizzy receptionist couldn't meet my eye. I hoped she blamed herself. I think the dentist must have given Keith the shot this time, because that part of the proceedings was pretty quiet. Not long afterward, Keith came out. He was weak at the knees, a few shades paler than when he'd gone in, and his eyes looked glazed and far away, but he'd done it. He might have overestimated his abilities, but he'd come out on the other side. I admired that.

Years later, my own threshold was tested to its limits in an entirely different manner. I was faced with the challenge of seeing how much I could take before I screamed aloud and embraced the pain, like Keith, or gave up and accepted the shot. I'm not sure which of the above I actually managed, which of those options could be deemed good or bad. I'll leave that for you to judge.

This is my account. This is the journal of my pain.

* * * There is nothing more agonizing than the death of your own child. No hurt that hits harder, no pain that goes deeper, no tears that burn more fiercely than those produced by the terrible knowledge that you have outlived your daughter or son. Being part of a profession focused on the welfare of children, I'd heard this said repeatedly before I endured the loss. There is no verbal platitude or empathy that can soothe the pain of that constant wish, your continual search, for the person you love more than anything else in the world, the person you have lost.

Actually, scratch the above. Or if it can't bear to be scratched, then at least add a footnote.

* * *

I write, though I am not a writer. My concern is not narrative, character, or chronological structure, but the rearing of children in modern society, the ills a lack of proper parenting can produce, and the strange phenomena of pain. What a lot of P's I have in that sentence. Never mind. If I were a writer, I would have known how to extract such lazy alliteration. My point is, if a tale does emerge from these disparate, rambling pages, then so be it, though I have to be fair and let any potential reader know that was never my intention. My vocation is/was a teacher of secondary school–level English, but I gave that up a long time ago. Now I use my skills in a more direct fashion, with children on the margins, the ones I feel need it most.

I graduated from my father's former polytechnic a Bachelor of Education, just over twenty-two years ago. I was immediately snapped up by a prestigious private school and worked there for almost eighteen months. I had a beautiful house, a husband, a loving family, a newborn son, even a lovely dog. Now, only my limited family remain, for what little good it does. That person, the woman I was, is not exactly gone as much as she has faded into the background, distant like a stationary object viewed from a speeding train. I am neither sad nor concerned to see her go. She is no use to me now.

I took a long look in the mirror before I wrote the following paragraphs, in order to have a better understanding of the woman I am. I think it was a bad idea. I haven't gone as far to actually ban mirrors, but I suppose I do tend to duck my head twice a day as I brush my teeth, and I forgot to check how my clothes fit when I stopped buying new things. What for? My local charity shops are probably the best stocked in the country, with more designer wear than Westfield's. I'm joking, of course, but you get the idea. I've a sneaking suspicion a charity shop off Portobello Road and one on Leeds High Street bear not even the slightest comparison.

So I gave myself the old once-over and I have to admit, it scared me quite a bit. I've worn my hair short for twenty years, but despite that I still had the image of myself as I'd been in college, with that long ponytail halfway down my back. Silly cow. I'd put on quite a bit of weight, not that I was fat, mind you, but the skinny thing with the figure of a wooden clothes peg was long gone. My cheeks were chubby, and my maize complexion looked much paler than I remembered. What scared me were the rings around my eyes. That gave my age away more than anything, and I was reminded of the fact I would be fifty in less than six years, and I couldn't look anymore. I had to go in the bedroom and lie down, tell myself I wouldn't be doing that again.

After ten minutes I rolled off the bed. I opened my laptop and sat at the desk and kept typing.

* * *

Books I have recently read:

Cannery Row, John Steinbeck

The Water Cure, Percival Everett

The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy

Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez

* * *

When my nerves subsided, I made dinner. The light was fading and the random creak of bicycle gears over mute voices lurked outside my window. The kids were out, doing whatever they did when the sun went down. I wished the government could think of some way to stop them loitering, but that didn't seem very likely.

I was sitting on my sofa, contemplating whether I should switch on the TV and be bombarded by some inane late-afternoon program, when my letter box rattled, the bark of metal making me jump. Suddenly the gloom got more acute, the shadows more threatening. It was the tall boy, I knew it. He'd found a way to work past the intercom system and follow me to my flat. The estate kids did it all the time, waiting for someone to come inside, then slipping past the door. Maybe I hadn't been so clever.

The letter box rattled again, impatient. Stopped. I pushed my nose into the sofa, glad I hadn't switched on the TV, waiting to see if he'd go.

Held my breath.

It rattled again, for a long time.


I took a slow peek above the sofa.

Silence. Compressing the room with its weight. Then:


A beam of light from the open letter box, imaginary eyes. I dropped against my sofa cushions.

—I know you're in there!

Shit. Maybe he had seen me. But he could be bluffing. It was dark ...

—C'mon ...

More rattling, awful, tense silence. I strained to hear better.

—Open the bloody door ...

Risking another quick peek. Still doubting. It was probably him, but I didn't want to take the chance.

—Beverley, open the bloody door, will you!

It was him. He was going to be so annoyed.

I got up from the sofa, sheepish, opened up. Seth came striding into the flat, all six-foot-plus, towering above me. Even though his face was cast in shadow I could feel his frown.

—Why the hell didn't you let me in?

—I didn't know it was you. You should have phoned or something; let me know you were coming.

—I told you. Last week.

—Well, you should have buzzed the intercom. I turned and walked into the flat. That's what it's for.

He waited, slow spinning, a looming figure.

—Why are the lights off?


Excerpted from THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO CANE by Courttia Newland Copyright © 2013 by Courttia Newland. Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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The Gospel According to Cane 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
OOSABookClub More than 1 year ago
Beverley Cottrell’s son, Malakay, was kidnapped. Any parent’s worst nightmare. The stress and strain resulted in the dissolution of her marriage. Some twenty years later she meets a young man claiming to be her long lost son. Courttia Newland’s “The Gospel According to Cane” is a fascinating read. The plot development and writing are strong. The journey into despair wreaks havoc upon lives without anticipated consequences and thus remains within the realm of possibility. I only have two complaints. I felt the actions of the main character were, at times, unbelievable in the face of trading one’s safety to find a loss. I also felt the ending was weak with an unrealistic ending. That said, “The Gospel According to Cane” is a worthy read and one I’d easily recommend. Reviewed by: Gail