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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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A Book of Blues
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Gone Away Boy - From 'A Book of Blues'


Stella got the giggles twenty minutes after, lying on the sofa pounding cushions and holding her belly. Davis watched. He was laughing too, less so, as he was struck by her expression. She hadn’t looked that way since they were teenagers.   

            He crawled on the sofa next to her, snaking his legs between hers, back turned, facing the television. The room was dark, apart from intermittent flashes from the screen. Stella put her arms around his waist. He could feel her warm breath on the knob of his spine, which perfectly matched the warmth at the centre of his forehead. He let his thoughts drift, eyes open, dappled light playing on his cheeks. He heard a deep hum from his wife.

             ‘Mmmm,’ she said. ‘That’s good.’

             ‘It is.’

             ‘We need music.’

             ‘We do.’

             ‘Want to get some from Barry’s room?’

             ‘Does that mean you want me to get it?’

             ‘No. Yes. Yes and no. Oh, I don’t know.’

             She giggled again. The room was moving to the left, like a carousel.

             ‘Are you even sure you want to hear Barry’s music?’

             ‘What?’

             ‘I said, “Are you even sure you want to hear Barry’s music?” Cloth ears.’

             ‘You’re slurring, that’s why. And yes I do. Maybe it’ll sound better.’

             They wallowed in the drift. Car engines rose and fell.

             ‘I’ll go,’ he said, struggling to his feet, leaving her smiling.

             The world was spinning, but he had that under control. He hauled his own body weight up the stairs, put his hand out for the light and Barry’s door. Going in, he was amazed at how tidy the room was. That wasn’t inherited from him, or his mother. Surfaces were free of dust, books alphabetically shelved, the computer desk empty apart from a notepad and pen. Davis had an insane urge to open the drawers and throw clothes, pull down the books, grab all his CD’s and spread them across the floor. It looked like a room kept just so because someone had died, not because someone had gone away. It made him scared. He told himself it was paranoia, just like he did in Uni, but the feeling wouldn’t leave him.

             He ended up taking a handful of CD’s without even looking at the contents, brought them back downstairs to Stella unable to stem a hunter/gatherer’s pride. He put the first into the deck and pressed play. Who knew what kind of music it was. Dirt, Grime, Footstep? It was the kind of music they were used to from behind their son’s closed door, or on the cable shows he sometimes watched, or in the car, a relentless full to capacity beat and bass that made them feel tired and old. But tonight they listened. Tonight they were re-living their youth, what they had felt and thought when they first met and were open to each other because they were open to the world. They nodded their heads and shuffled their bums on the sofa, and when Stella got to her feet with her hands outstretched he rose to meet her, and they danced together, fingers entwined, palms joined, throwing all of their energy into matching the beat, Stella laughing with her head thrown back, laughing harder then she had in months, and he felt a twinge of worry again, was this too far? He was like this most of the time, searching beyond a smile, beyond the crinkle of her eyes as if he could see past skin and bone to read the flashes of electricity that sparked her thoughts. Searching for a place beyond the immediate, a desperate farmer scanning clear skies for rain. Sometimes she would laugh hard, and later go to bed early, leave him facing the TV. If he went upstairs he could stand by the door and hear her cry in the darkness. He would turn away, go back down, face the TV and not watch. He would wait a few hours before he went upstairs and slipped beneath sheets.       

             Tonight they were time traveling, so he forced his mind from worry. He swung her arms and laughed with Stella, and when the song came to a close they fell against each other, panting and chuckling like many years before. Their bodies came together and their sweat combined and their hair rested against skin.

             ‘Is there any more?’ she said.

             He sat back down, fingered the thin plastic bag.

             ‘I think there might be one.’

             ‘Let’s smoke it.’

             She sat next to him, all big, earnest eyes.

             ‘He’ll be cross.’

             ‘We’ll buy more.’

             ‘From where?’

             ‘OK, we’ll give him the money.’

             ‘Oh, so now our son’s a drug dealer?’

             ‘It’s only this once,’ she said, eyes bright, skirt high on her thighs, and then he couldn’t help it, he wanted her, and they leaned forward of one accord, pressing against each other, removing clothes, writhing on the sofa. Afterwards she said nothing, just lay with her toes brushing the polished floorboards, staring at the ceiling. He wanted to ask if she was all right, was tired of being repetitive. He felt he might be crushing her, so he eased away from her body, picked up the thin plastic bag. He rolled like an expert, as though it hadn’t been decades.

             Once he was done, Stella put on her clothes. She rested her head on his shoulder.

             ‘Let’s go to the caravan.’

             He had the joint in his mouth, lighter in hand.

             ‘Tonight?’

             ‘Please. Let’s get out of the city. Just for the weekend. Just go.’

             Davis had no arguments, bar the time of night. He took the joint from his mouth and slipped it into his pocket.

            The roads were empty, their journey much reduced. They drove with Miles Davis as accompaniment, his father’s favourite musician, hypnotized by the glowing lights and signs of the motorway. The cat eyes were like breadcrumbs leading the way. Service stations beckoned, were ignored. He relaxed on the headrest, let his body fall into the seat. Stella left her hand on his thigh for most of the drive, talking very little. She drank water from her thermos, looking out of the window. If she caught his eye in the rearview she would smile at Davis, a steady, knowing grin. When the CD stopped, she played it again.

             They’d listened to Miles four times over when they pulled into the caravan park, with its bumpy, unlit roads. Davis steered from memories of long weekends in the early days when Stella’s parents would baby sit; summers spent later, when Barry was a toddler; of outings with close friends while their son was away on school journey, stolen slivers of time. They pulled up outside their caravan and took in the silence. Now there was nothing but time.

             Stella took a few puffs of the joint, passed it to Davis. An owl hooted. That made them laugh. They unlocked the van and took a good look around, unsurprised that nothing had changed. Davis made the bed. Stella made tea. As he fluffed up the sheets, Davis thought he heard her walk onto the steps and stopped what he was doing to listen. Quiet. That was a bad sign. He shouldn’t have left her alone with so little to do. He should have made the tea. He’d thought he was being helpful when he was just negligent. Stella wasn’t good on her own.

             She’d been on her own when the pain came, that was the trouble. Six months after Barry first left for Bristol, a small bump rose under her dress like baking bread. She’d held his hand, moved it. To replace our gone away boy, she’d said. She’d been joking, but Davis could see truth in her eyes. They decided not to tell Barry in case he was diverted from his studies. He’d be worried for his mother, at her age. He might even want to come back.

             A month afterwards she’d been running a tap in the kitchen when she felt cramps. Fell to the floor, dialed the ambulance on her mobile. He’d been at work, his phone switched off, couldn’t help it, those was the rules. Tending other people’s children.         

             Davis smoothed a hand over the duvet, plumped up pillows. He sat on the bed and let the drift carry him, body limp, gliding with the current, thinking of everything and nothing at all, sightless eyes on walls the colour of dried Tangerine. When the owl hooted again, a soft cry in keeping with the run of his thoughts, he realized how long he’d been there. He heard the mournful sound of another animal, a cat or maybe a fox that reminded him of a child startled awake somewhere distant, maybe in a caravan across the park. He imagined opening his eyes to endless darkness, not knowing why. He let his head drop, stomach churning. He squeezed his eyes shut and whispered her name so low even he hardly heard it. Nina. He gasped and clutched his belly and tried to chase the last sight of her from his memory, but it stayed.

             Outside the night was silent, the darkness a walled maze. He could smell damp leaves and mud, a faint pong of cows. Davis walked down the tiny steps, hoping to see her resting against the caravan, but she wasn’t there. He tried not to panic, kept going. Sometimes he stumbled in the mud and even thought he should go back for his walking shoes, but he didn’t want her alone a moment longer. Once he was away from the lights of his caravan and the spots of his next-door neighbours, the night came down like a fallen brick and having his eyes open was no different to having them closed. He moved like a toddler, unsure, legs wide apart, arms out in front of him, trying to use his feet as feelers, dragging them through the unseen tall grass.

             He waited for his eyes to adjust, although nothing happened for a long time, and the dark seemed to spring back when he touched it until he felt as though he’d been consumed by it all; his daughter’s death, his wife’s grief, his guilt. He was tempted to just give up, to sit on the cold damp of the mud and wait for whatever judgment he was due. He even stopped and looked around, knowing there was nothing to see, caught a glitter of silver he almost took as an illusion. When it happened again, Davis saw he was squinting at water, the reflection of moonbeams. Of course. The lake. He pretended he hadn’t been scared, hadn’t forgotten, smiled to himself.

             She was at the waters edge, a photonegative silhouette, as if she’d been cut out of his vision, balled up, thrown away. She was smoking a cigarette with her back to him, the mug of tea between her feet. She was shaking, and at first he hoped it was because she didn’t have on a jacket. Davis heard her sniff, stopped a few feet away. Waited. She didn’t seem to have heard him, even though she wasn’t loud. He looked at her feet and saw a droplet splash into the mug. Raised his chin to the sky. No rain.

 He moved towards Stella and put his arms around her. They circled her waist easily, that hadn’t changed. She gave a masculine grumble, like she had on the sofa. Davis squeezed tight, turned her.

             ‘Look at me Stella,’ he said. ‘Please?’

             A cloud passed above the lake. It grew difficult to see her. There was no light, no sound, just them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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