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Courttia Newland
Courttia Newland

Courttia Newland’s first novel, The Scholar, was published in 1997. Further critically acclaimed work includes Society Within (1999) and Snakeskin (2002), The Dying Wish (2006), Music for the Off-Key (2006), and A Book of Blues (2011). He is co-editor of IC3: The Penguin Book of New Black Writing in Britain (2000) and has short stories featured in many anthologies. His career has encompassed both screen and playwriting; plays include B is for Black, and an adaptation of Euripedes' Women of Troy. He was nominated for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the CWA Dagger in the Library Award, the Alfred Fagon Award, the Frank O’ Conner Award and The Edge Hill Prize 2012. His latest anthology, co-edited with Monique Roffey, is Tell Tales 4: The Global Village (2009). A forthcoming novel, The Gospel According to Cane, was published by Akashic Books (US) and Telegram (UK) in February 2013.


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The Gospel According to Cane: Novel Excerpt


There is the matter of what happened, and how, and when[1], and of course my own shirking of details, which is understandable, I’m sure. I’m not going to go into a diatribe about the whole awfulness, how hard is to look back, all that angst. I can say this - since the moment I started writing I knew I had to get to this point, the part where I told. It seems my life ever since has been a constant debate of do I, don’t I, are they worthy, should I let things be? It’s the constant murmur in the back of my class, the one I try to dismiss and always fail to.

 So, on with the show. And yes, I’m still being facetious.

 I can’t recount what happened verbatim because I don’t actually know. It was him. My husband. Reduce anything to a simple noun and it’s easy to retain distance. Let’s make things tougher, shall we? Let’s call him Patrick. That was his name, and it’s his story, so we should at least call him by it. Patrick. There was a time when I loved the sound those combined syllables made.

 Patrick was taking care of Malakay because I had gone back to my workplace to talk about my return from maternity leave. I was reluctant to be away from my child, but I didn’t want to leave the job for too long, and we weren’t rich enough not to need the money, and my maternity benefits only went so far. I’d expressed a few bottles of milk and left them in the fridge with carrot slices[2], as Malakay liked them to chew on, and was just becoming aware of solids. Patrick was taking our son to Ravenscourt Park so he could crawl in the grass and get some fresh air, Daddy too I remember thinking. That much I know.

 From what I have been told, Patrick did go to the park early that morning, stayed until lunchtime and left. He was feeling peckish so he stopped at a Chinese take away, as our cupboards at home were bare. I’d taken to advance cooking, big batches, sometimes three pots on the go, cooled and placed in the freezer. Malakay was sleeping badly and I suppose I was nervous about my job, because I hadn’t found time to cook that week, and that’s what plagued me terribly over the years, the thought that had I been a better wife, more committed, less caught up with my career, that my son would never have left. No matter how ludicrous the thought, it exists, even as I write.

 So Patrick stopped outside the take away, and you might be thinking he immediately unbuckled Malakay and took our child with him, but he did not. He was inside for twenty minutes ordering chicken fried rice and chilli prawn balls. When he came out, Malakay was gone. Nothing else was taken from the locked car, just our child.     

 And that’s it. That simple. One minute I was an ordinary mother, doing ordinary motherly things, next I was some red-faced, claw-fingered monster with leaking eyes and bad skin, a tendency to scratch like a kitten, leaping at things, people, casting them aside, Patrick most of all. I just couldn’t, can’t understand what he had done to me. How he had managed to return without searching every street and alley of this stinking city that swallowed my son, every car, every person, every home and public space. The worse thing was my coming home knowing nothing, spying the police outside my house and rushing inside to see him sitting there, head bowed, two officers on either side like bookends, crying into his mug of tea and not looking at me while they told me, it was them who had the guts, and even when I asked where this had happened I could see it, the white plastic bag that contained the greasy, rotten food this man had forsaken my son for, and I couldn’t help myself, I just grabbed it, and swung it, and hit him full in the face, and I kept hitting until the cheap, nasty food tumbled from the bag, and the policemen held my arms and wrestled me to the floor, and I was sick everywhere and I’ve never eaten Chinese since.    

 After that, it was all familiar. Police reports, separate rooms and separate accounts. Phone calls received and made. Our dog, Caesar, snout on paws, overshadowed by suffering. Flowers, cards, food arriving on our doorstep, forlorn faces, family. Camped by the phone, one wife and her husband, together and apart. No news, a few rumours, nothing concrete. Us sat behind a long wooden table, police banners in front and behind like some football stadium, jugs of water and glasses and microphones and thick black cables. Patrick gazing into space, me holding the hand-written note I couldn’t read when the time came because my fingers were trembling, my voice was trembling, I was trembling all over and I could taste my own grief, bitter grit. Jackie and Ray in the wings like understudies, early days for them and what a thing to happen while they were still dating, what a thing to remember when people asked ‘How did you two meet?’ when your honeymoon period is synonymous with the worst pain in family history. Why wouldn’t you wave that goodbye, retreat into your own shell, lest you become infected with the compound known as loss? 

 Another baby snatch from a South London hospital a month after, horror that a mother might endure my pain. Patrick and I together on the sofa, cordless on my lap, watching the news. Seventeen days. Each an agonizing stretch of what if they’re linked, there’s a pattern, a nursery of stolen babies locked in a basement, kept in the dark for reasons we dare not think about. Then seventeen days later, a return. The cherubic baby found in the Cotswalds with a bogus health worker, celebration. Our excitement, a vague sense of fear. It had been forty-seven days for us.  

 The police at our door, unsmiling. Patrick hauled away in cuffs, telling me to call the partners. The news reports that evening, after I spent all day at the station, saying he had been arrested, not charged, for questioning. The tense, stoic faces in my home, my mother without make-up, my father’s worry forming deep crevasses, no one talking, no one meeting my eyes, no one able to say much of anything, avoiding any mention of Patrick, keeping their eyes away from the candles and trinkets surrounding pictures of my son. I would commune with him alone, I would bow my head and weep and pray. I would look into his gentle eyes and curse myself for marrying a man whose primary goal was the satisfaction of self, the negotiation between pursed lips and posterior, a man devoid of simple common sense. I even blamed Patrick for placing himself in the position where he could be arrested, and the suspicions of the police became mine. I travelled to the station, sat and waited at the reception, brought food and fresh water and bags of lemon sherbets, which Patrick loved when he was in court, but I was engaged in a process of divorcing my husband even then, I was mentally severing the ties that bonded me to him and he could feel it from his cell, everyone could, his parents and mine, it was written on my body like a tattoo.

 The partners went all out for my husband, I give them that. Every day they would march into the station, brief me on the day’s business, how Patrick was holding up, march into the cells. Hours later, sometimes late in the evening they would be back, then it was de-briefing, what they said, what he said, what it all amounted to. They assured me there was no evidence. Many eye-witnesses had stepped up to corroborate my husband’s statement; park-goers, staff at the take away, people on the street, the operator when he called 999. The partners promised it would go no further; the detectives were reasonable, far from zealous, the partners already in the process of setting him free. When I asked about cost they kissed me on both cheeks, shook their heads and changed subject. They did that whenever I mentioned money, and eventually I stopped trying.     

 Lonely evenings, a full house, myself and the dog in my bedroom, where I’d taken to hiding. A handful of thick hair, huge gleaming scissors. Facing myself in the mirror, squeezing my thumb and first finger together, hearing the scrunch, feeling release, relief. Down stairs, cold air on warm skin, unclothed, holding the banister tight in case I fell. Shocked faces. Silence. Jackie and Ray leaving not long afterwards, the rot had begun. Father taking me back to my room, mother’s tears.

 The detectives were as the partners had described. Casual to the point of distraction, shirt and ties, crumpled jackets. Serious eyes. Always working, wasn’t hard to tell. Calm and respectful, constantly called me madam. The one that spoke most, said his name was Seth, walked into the reception the first time we met properly, after my husband’s arrest, and couldn’t take his eyes from me. It was obvious. We’d met before, of course we had, at the house, the press conference, but this was the first time he had seen the real me, not the monster, though I had become some new creature even then, less the woman with the ponytail that fell to my rear, who smiled and danced and posed for cameras, but the one with a shoulder length bob, who looked at her hands, spoke in a hoarse whisper, eyes dark from lack of sleep. He stammered a lot, something I guessed was unusual, because the other detective kept looking at him. Seth was so sincere, so awkward, I knew I’d made an ally. Even in my desperate state I recognised that he might help, began to do what little I could to make sure he did.      

 Their apologies, heads bowed, gracious. Patrick emerging from a side door wearing the same clothes, drawn, colourless. I wanted to support him but I didn’t have strength. In my mind I did it, reached for him, hugged him, whispered it was OK. In reality there was no recognition, a blank. I was a dying star exploding into super nova, energy dispelled, throwing off my outer shell to reveal a core that shrunk to a tenth of my original size, spinning thirty times a second. I was the black hole that absorbed not light, but emotion, and nothing in my immediate vicinity could escape.        

 In our home, nothing remained. Mother treated my husband as well as she could, but it was in her eyes. Father hardly spoke. Patrick’s parents visited for a few days, and then went back to the States; work matters, they said. Jackie and Ray called, didn’t come. Even Caesar was subdued, skulking from us whenever we reached, lowering mournful eyes. Perhaps he wondered where the baby had gone. Seventy days by then, and we were just beginning to face the possibility that our son wasn’t coming home.

  Seth and Francis came to keep us informed. There were leads, no arrests. That didn’t go down well with Patrick, who was attempting to sue the police. Seth would always watch me when he thought no one was looking, but I didn’t mind[3]. It would help my cause. My parents left, came back every day, as did others, but we finally had the house to ourselves. People grow tired of grief, especially protracted grief, especially when it concerns the unthinkable, a child. We were living proof it happened if you weren’t vigilant, and we saw stark evidence in each other’s eyes. I slept in Malakay’s bedroom. Patrick was grateful for that, I always thought. Even hearing him move about the house was too much. I took to wearing earplugs, confining myself, coming out when he’d left. Whole days passed without seeing each other.

 It was only a matter of that old foe, time. Quicker than I could tell, I was sitting in the living room eating cornmeal porridge when I saw a news report. Still no leads in the case of the missing baby, snatched from a locked car nine months ago. And I was spellbound. I hadn’t realised. I looked around the wreck of the house, down at the bowl and saw what everyone had. Patrick left four months ago, I worked back. Jackie said something about a junior at his firm, ten years younger, looked like I had. I got up, bones aching from sitting prone, shifting through an enormous pile of letters on the kitchen table. Each one was red, demanding. We would have to sell almost everything we owned.          

 



[1] It was April 10th 1991.

[2] He’d also grown partial to slices of lemon, which he’d gnaw with a severe wince and great delight.

[3] Once, when we were alone, he touched my hand. I snatched it away so swiftly he drew in air between his teeth, and he wouldn’t look at me for months after.


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