The Red House

by Mark Haddon

The Red House

Paperback, 264 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $15 | purchase

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Book Summary

Mark Haddon peers inside the messy dynamics of a group of relatives, each grappling with their own fears and trying to make sense of themselves as a family, all while stuck in a vacation house in the remote English countryside. The Red House braids together themes of sexual identity, parental insecurity and sibling rivalry.

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Awards and Recognition

1 week on NPR Hardcover Fiction Bestseller List

NPR stories about The Red House

Critics' Lists: Summer 2012

Book Party For One: A Loner's Summer Survival Guide

Talk about a nightmare of enforced holiday conviviality! Mark Haddon's new novel, The Red House, is a kind of dark, contemporary British version of that cinematic chestnut, Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation. Haddon, who made a splash with his 2003 novel, The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night-Time, conjures up the emotional discomforts that ensue when a wealthy surgeon invites his feuding sister, her unemployed husband and their kids to share a vacation house in

Critics' Lists: Summer 2012

Literary Look Ahead: 13 Great Books On The Horizon

British children's author Mark Haddon first showed up on American literary radar in 2003 with his surprise best-seller, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, his first novel for adult readers. The book drew kudos — and some controversy — for its portrayal of an autistic teenager in southwest England. For his new novel, Haddon turns to a ritual near and (very occasionally) dear to the hearts of summer readers: the family vacation. Richard, a successful physician, gathers

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Read An Excerpt: 'The Red House'

friday

Cooling towers and sewage farms. Finstock, Charlbury, Ascott-under-Wychwood. Seventy miles per hour, the train unzips the fields. Two gun-gray lines beside the river's meander. Flashes of sun on the hammered metal. Something of steam about it, even now. Hogwarts and Adlestrop. The night mail crossing the border. Cheyenne sweeping down from the ridge. Delta blues from the boxcar. Somewhere, those secret points that might just switch and send you curving into a world of uniformed porters and great-aunts and summers at the lake.

Angela leant against the cold window, hypnotized by the power lines as they sagged and were scooped up by the next gantry, over and over and over. Polytunnels like silver mattresses, indecipherable swirls of graffiti on a brick siding. She'd buried her mother six weeks ago. A bearded man in a suit with shiny elbows playing "Danny Boy" on Northumbrian pipes. Everything off-kilter, the bandage on the vicar's hand, that woman chasing her windblown hat between the headstones, the dog that belonged to no one. She thought her mother had left the world a long way back, the weekly visits mostly for Angela's own bene­fit. Boiled mutton, Classic FM and a commode in flesh-colored plastic. Her death should have been a relief. Then the first spade of earth hit the coffin, a bubble rose in her chest and she realized her mother had been what ... ? A cornerstone? A breakwater?

The week after the funeral Dominic had been standing at the sink bottle-brushing the green vase. The last of the freak snow was still packed down the side of the shed and the rotary washing line was turning in the wind. Angela came in holding the phone as if it was a mystery object she'd found on the hall table. That was Richard.

Dominic upended the vase on the wire rack. And what did he want?

He's offered to take us on holiday.

He dried his hands on the tea towel. Are we talking about your brother, or some entirely different Richard? We are indeed talking about my brother.

He really had no idea what to say. Angela and Richard had spent no more than an afternoon in each other's company over the last fifteen years and their meeting at the funeral had seemed perfunctory at best. Where's the exotic location?

He's rented a house on the Welsh border. Near Hay-on-Wye.

The fine sandy beaches of Herefordshire. He halved the tea towel and hung it over the radiator.

I said yes.

Well, thanks for the consultation.

Angela paused and held his eye. Richard knows we can't afford a holiday of our own. I'm not looking forward to it any more than you, but I didn't have a great deal of choice.

He held up his hands. Point taken. They'd had this argument way too many times. Herefordshire it is then.

Ordnance Survey 161. The Black Mountains/Y Mynyddoedd Duon. Dominic flipped up the pink cover and unfolded the big paper con­certina. He had loved maps since he was a boy. Here be monsters. X marks the spot. The edges of the paper browned and scalloped with a burning match, messages flashed from peak to peak using triangles of broken mirror.

He looked sideways at Angela. So hard to remember that girl on the far side of the union bar, her shoulders in that blue summer dress. She disgusted him now, the size and sag of her, the veins on her calves, almost a grandmother. He dreamt of her dying unexpectedly, redis­covering all those freedoms he'd lost twenty years ago. Then he had the same dream five minutes later and he remembered what poor use he'd made of those freedoms first time round and he heard the squeak of trolley wheels and saw the bags of fluid. All those other lives. You never did get to lead them.

He gazed out of the window and saw a narrow boat on the adja­cent canal, some bearded pillock at the tiller, pipe, mug of tea. Ahoy there, matey. Stupid way to spend a holiday, banging your head every time you stood up. A week in a boat with Richard. Think of that. They were in the middle of nowhere, thank goodness. If it all got too much he could walk up into the hills and yell at the sky. To be honest, it was Angela he was worried about. All that hardwired sibling friction. Do not return once lit and so forth.

Richard's hair, yes. Now that he thought about it that was where the evil was located, this luxuriant black crest, like the tusks of a bull walrus, a warning to beta males. Or like a separate creature entirely, some alien life-form that had pushed suckers into his skull and was using him as a vehicle.

The children sat opposite. Alex, seventeen, was reading Main Force by Andy McNab. Daisy, sixteen, was reading a book called The Art of Daily Prayer. Benjy, eight, had swiveled so that his feet were on the headrest and his head was hanging over the edge of the seat, eyes closed. Angela poked his shoulder with the toe of her shoe. What on earth are you doing?

I'm on horseback beheading Nazi zombies.

They looked like children from three separate families, Alex the athlete, all shoulders and biceps, off into the wild blue yonder every other weekend, canoeing, mountain biking, Benjy a kind of boy-liquid which had been poured into whatever space he happened to be occu­pying, and Daisy ... Angela wondered if something dreadful had happened to her daughter over the past year, something that might explain the arrogant humility, the way she'd made herself so ostenta­tiously plain.

They plunged into a tunnel and the windows thumped and clat­tered. She saw an overweight, middle-aged woman floating out there in the dark for several seconds before she vanished in a blast of sun­light and poplars, and she was back in her body again, dress pinching at the waist, beads of sweat in the small of her back, that train smell, burning dust, hot brakes, the dull reek of the toilets.

Carter placed his boot on the man's shoulder and rolled him over. Th is couldn't be happening. He'd killed Bunny O'Neil. They'd trained together in the Cairngorms ten years ago. What was an ex–SAS captain doing in the middle of Afghanistan, armed with a black-market Soviet rifle, trying to assassinate a billionaire head of an international construc­tion company?

Farther down the carriage the ticket collector was squatting beside a bird-frail woman with long gray hair and spectacles on a red string. So you've come on the train with no ticket and no means of pay­ment? Shaved head, cloudy blue tattoo on his meaty forearm.

Angela wanted to pay for her ticket and save her from this bully­ing man. She was trying to pick something invisible from the air with her tiny liver-spotted hands. I can't ...

Is someone meeting you at Hereford? A tenderness in his voice which she hadn't heard the first time. He touched the woman's arm gently to get her attention. A son, maybe, or a daughter?

The woman clawed at the air. I can't quite ...

Angela felt a prickle at the corner of her eye and turned away.

Richard had remarried six months ago, acquiring a stepdaughter into the bargain. Angela hadn't gone to the wedding. Edinburgh was a long way, it was term time and they'd never felt like brother and sister, just two people who spoke briefly on the phone every few weeks or so to manage the stages of their mother's decline. She'd met Louisa and Melissa for the first time at the funeral. They looked as if they had been purchased from an exclusive catalog at some exorbitant price, flawless skin and matching black leather boots. The girl stared at her and didn't look away when Angela caught her eye. Bobbed chestnut hair, black denim skirt almost but not quite too short for a funeral. So much sheen and sneer at sixteen. Melissa's directing a play at school. Midsummer Night's Dream.

Something slightly footballer's wife about Louisa. Angela couldn't picture her going to the theater or reading a serious book, couldn't imagine the conversations she and Richard might have when they were alone. But his judgment of other people had always been a lit­tle wobbly. Ten years married to the Ginger Witch. The presents he bought for the kids when he last visited, so much effort aimed in the wrong direction. Benjy's football annual, Daisy's bracelet. She won­dered if he was making a new version of the same mistake, whether she was simply not-Jennifer, and he was another rung on the social ladder.

I'm going to the loo. Benjy stood up. My bladder is so awesomely full.

Don't get lost. She touched his sleeve.

You can't get lost on a train.

A sick pervert could strangle you, said Alex, and throw your body out of a window. I'll punch him in the crutch. Crotch, said Alex. Critch, crotch, cratch ... sang Benjy as he made his way up the carriage.

Eventually we find that we no longer need silence. We no longer need solitude. We no longer even need words. We can make all our actions holy. We can cook a meal for our family and it becomes prayer. We can go for a walk in the park and it becomes prayer.

Alex photographed a herd of cows. What was the point of being black and white, evolutionarily? He hated real violence. He could still hear the snap of Callum's leg that night in Crouch End. He felt sick when he saw footage from Iraq or Afghanistan. He didn't tell anyone about this. But Andy McNab tamed it by turning it into a cartoon. And now he was thinking about Melissa unzipping that black denim skirt. The word unzipping gave him an erection which he covered with the novel. But was it OK fancying your uncle's stepdaughter? Some people married their cousins and that was acceptable, unless you both had recessive genes for something bad and your babies came out really fucked up. But girls who went to private school were secretly gagging for it, with their tans and their white knickers that smelt of fabric conditioner. Except she probably wouldn't speak to him, would she, because girls only spoke to twats with floppy hair and skinny jeans. On the other hand, normal service was kind of suspended on holiday and maybe they'd be sharing a bathroom and he'd go in and open the shower cubicle door and squeeze her soapy tits so she moaned.

A man is trapped in a hot flat above the shipyard, caring for a wife who will live out her days in this bed, watching this television. Twin sisters are separated at seven weeks and know nothing of one another, only an absence that walks beside them always on the road. A girl is raped by her mother's boyfriend. A child dies and doesn't die. Family, that slippery word, a star to every wandering bark, and everyone sail­ing under a different sky .

And then there was her fourth child, the child no one else could see. Karen, her loved and secret ghost, stillborn all those years ago. Holoprosencephaly. Hox genes failing along the midline of the head. Her little monster, features melted into the center of her face. They'd told her not to look but she'd looked and screamed at them to take the thing away. Then in the small hours, while Dominic slept and the ward was still, she wanted that tiny damaged body in her arms again, because she could learn to love her, she really could, but the points had switched and Karen had swerved away into the parallel world she glimpsed sometimes from cars and trains, the spiderweb sheds and the Gypsy camps, the sidings and the breakers' yards, the world she visited in dreams, stumbling through dog shit and nettles, the air treacly with heat, lured by a girl's voice and the flash of a summer dress. And this coming Thursday would be Karen's eighteenth birth­day. Which was what she hated about the countryside, no distraction from the dirty messed-up workings of the heart. You'll love it, Dominic had said. Inbred locals surrounding the house at night with pitchforks and flaming brands. Not understanding, in the way that he failed to under­stand so many things these days.

Dominic wiped the sandwich crumbs from his lip and looked over at Daisy, who smiled briefly before returning to her book. She was so much calmer these days, none of the unpredictable tears which spilled out of her last year making him feel clumsy and use­less. It was bollocks, of course, the Jesus stuff, and some of the church people made his flesh crawl. Bad clothes and false cheer. But he was oddly proud, the strength of her conviction, the way she swam so doggedly against the current. If only her real friends hadn't drifted away. But Alex wouldn't look up however long you stared. If he was reading he was reading, if he was running he was running. He'd expected more from having a son. That Oedipal rage between two and four. Stop hugging Mummy. Then, from seven to ten, a golden time, filling a buried cashbox with baby teeth and Pokémon cards, camping in the New Forest, that night the pony opened the zip of their tent and stole their biscuits. He taught Alex how to play the piano, theme tunes arranged in C major with a single finger in the left hand. Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark. But he grew bored of the piano and gave Benjy the key to the cashbox and went camping with his friends. Devon, the Peak District.

He wondered sometimes if he loved Daisy not because of the strength of her belief but because of her loneliness, the mess she was making of her life, the way it rhymed with his own.

Behind everything there is a house. Behind everything there is always a house, compared to which every other house is larger or colder or more luxurious. Cladding over thirties brick, a broken greenhouse, rhubarb and rusted cans of Castrol for the mower. At the far end you can peel back the corner of the chicken-wire fence and slip down into the cutting where the trains run to Sheffield every half hour. The tarry sleepers, the locked junction box where they keep the electricity. If you leave pennies on the rail the trains hammer them into long bronze tongues, the queen's face flattened to nothing.

Pan back and you're kneeling at the pond's edge because your brother says there are tadpoles. You reach into the soup of stems and slime, he shoves you and you're still screaming when you hit the surface. Your mouth fills with water. Fear and loneliness will always taste like this. You run up the garden, sodden, trailing weed, shouting, Dad ... Dad ... Dad ... And you can see him standing at the kitchen door, but he starts to evaporate as you reach the cracked patio, thin­ning in waves like Captain Kirk in the transporter room, that same high buzzing sound, and the door is empty, and the kitchen is empty, and the house is empty and you realize he's never coming back.

Have you not got anything else to read? asked Angela.

Yep, said Daisy, but right now this is the book I would like to read if that's all right by you.

There's no need to be sarcastic.

Ladies ... said Alex, which would have escalated the row to flash-point if they hadn't been interrupted by Benjy running down the car­riage and pinballing off the seat backs. He'd been standing in the toilet when he remembered the werewolf from the Queen Victoria episode of Doctor Who. Eyes like black billiard balls, the heat of its breath on his neck. He squirreled himself under Dad's arm and rubbed the silky cuff of Dad's special shirt against his upper lip. Dad said, You all right, Captain?, and he said, Yeah, because he was now, so he took out his Natural History Museum notebook and the pen that wrote in eight colors and drew the zombies.

When he reentered the world they were changing trains at high speed, sprinting to another platform to catch a connecting train which left in two minutes. Halfway across the footbridge he remembered that he'd forgotten to pick up the metal thing. What metal thing? said Mum. The metal thing, he said, because he hadn't given it a name. It was a hinge from a briefcase and later on Mum would call it a piece of rubbish but he loved the strength of the spring and the smell it left on his fingers.

Dad said, I'll get it because when he was a child he kept a horse's tooth in a Golden Virginia tobacco tin, and Mum said, For Christ's sake. But Dad came back carrying the metal thing with seconds to spare and gave it to Benjy and said, Guard it with your life. And as they were pulling out of the station Benjy saw an old lady with long gray hair being arrested by two policemen in fluorescent-yellow jackets. One of the policemen had a gun. Then there was another train travel­ing beside them at almost exactly the same speed and Benjy remem­bered the story about Albert Einstein doing a thought experiment, sitting on a tram in Vienna going at the speed of light and shining a torch straight ahead so the light just sat there like candyfloss.

You hate Richard because he swans around his spacious Georgian apartment on Moray Place four hundred miles away while you perch on that scuffed olive chair listening to Mum roar in the cage of her broken mind. The nurses burn my hands. There was an air raid last night. You hate him because he pays for all of it, the long lawn, the low-rent cabaret on Friday nights, Magic Memories: The Stars of Yesteryear. You hate him for marrying that woman who expected your children to eat lamb curry and forced you to stay in a hotel. You hate him for replac­ing her so efficiently, as if an event which destroyed other people's lives were merely one more medical procedure, the tumor sliced out, wound stitched and swabbed. You hate him because he is the prodigal son.

When will Richard come to see me? Do you know Richard? He's such a lovely boy.

In spite of which, deep down, you like being the good child, the one who cares. Deep down you are still waiting for a definitive judg­ment in which you are finally raised above your relentlessly achieving brother, though the only person who could make that kind of judgment was drifting in and out of their final sleep, the mask misting and clear­ing, the low hiss of the cylinder under the bed. And then they were gone.

M6 southbound, the sprawl of Birmingham finally behind them. Richard dropped a gear and eased the Mercedes round a Belgian chemical tanker. FRANKLEY SERVICES 2 MILES. He imagined pulling over in the corner of the car park to watch Louisa sleeping, that spill of butter-colored hair, the pink of her ear, the mystery of it, why a man was aroused by the sight of one woman and not another, something deep in the brain stem like a sweet tooth or a fear of snakes. He looked in the rearview mirror. Melissa was listening to her iPod. She gave him a deadpan comedy wave. He slid the Eliot Gardiner Dido and Aeneas into the CD player and turned up the volume.

Melissa stared out of the window and pictured herself in a film. She was walking across a cobbled square. Pigeons, cathedral. She was wearing the red leather jacket Dad had bought her in Madrid. Fifteen years old. She walked into that room, heads turned and suddenly she understood.

But they'd want her to be friends with the girl, wouldn't they, just because they were the same age. Like Mum wanted to be friends with some woman on the till in Tesco's because they were both forty-four. The girl could have made herself look all right but she hadn't got a clue. Maybe she was a lesbian. Seven days in the countryside with someone else's relatives. It's a big thing for Richard. Because keeping Richard happy was obviously their Function in Life. Right.

Shake the cloud from off your brow,

Fate your wishes does allow;

Empires growing,

Pleasures flowing,

Fortune smiles and so should you.

Some idiot came past on a motorbike at Mach 4. Richard pic­tured a slick of spilt oil, sparks fantailing from the sliding tank, mas­sive head trauma and the parents agreeing to the transplant of all the major organs so that some good might come of a short life so cheaply spent, though Sod's Law would doubtless apply and some poor bastard would spend the next thirty years emptying his catheter bag and wip­ing scrambled egg off his chin.

Dido and Aeneas. Groper Roper made them listen to it at school. Pearls before swine. Probably in prison by now. Don't let him get you in the instrument cupboard. It was a joke back then. Interfering with children. Looking back, though, it's Roper who feels like the victim, the taunts, those damp eyes, the kind of man who hanged himself in isolated woodland.

Louisa was slowly coming round. Classical music and the smell of the cardboard fir tree on the rearview mirror. She was in the car with Richard, wasn't she. So often these days she seemed to hover between worlds, none of them wholly real. Her brothers, Carl and Dougie, worked in a car factory and lived six doors away from each other on the Blackthorn Estate. Not quite cars on bricks and fridges in the grass, not in their own gardens at least. When she visited they faked a pride in the sister who had bettered herself but what they really felt was disdain, and whilst she tried to return it she could feel the pull of a world in which you didn't have to think constantly of how others saw you. Craig had reveled in it. Th e two-worlds thing, Jaguar outside the chip shop, donkey jacket at parents' evening.

Wales. She'd forgotten. God. She'd only met Richard's family once. They liked you and you liked them. Had they? Had she? She'd trumped them by wearing too much black. Benjamin, the little boy, was wearing a Simpsons T-shirt of all things. She overheard him asking his father what would happen to his grandmother's body in the com­ing months. And the way the girl sang the hymns. As if there might be something wrong with her.

Richard had been seated next to Louisa at Tony Caborn's wed­ding, on what she correctly referred to as the divorcées' table in the corner of the marquee, presumably to quarantine the bad voodoo. Someone's discarded trophy wife, he thought. He introduced himself and she said, Don't chat me up, OK? She was visibly drunk. I seem to be giving off some kind of vibes today. He explained that he had no plans in that particular direction and she laughed, quite clearly at him rather than with him.

He turned and listened to a portly GP bemoaning the number of heroin users his practice was obliged to deal with, but his attention kept slipping to the conversation happening over his shoulder. Celeb­rity gossip and the shortcomings of Louisa's ex-husband, the wealthy builder. She was clearly not his kind of person, but the GP clearly was his kind of person and was boring him to death. Later on he watched her stand and cross the dance floor, big hips but firm, something Nor­dic about her, comfortable in her body in a way that Jennifer had never been. No plans in that particular direction. He'd been a pompous arse.

When she sat down he apologized for his earlier rudeness and she said, Tell me about yourself, and he realized how long it had been since some­one had said this.

Mum was smiling at Richard and doing the flirty thing where she hooked her hair behind her ear. It made Melissa think of them having sex, which disgusted her. They were in a traffic jam and Mika was singing "Grace Kelly." She took out a black biro and doodled a horse on the flyleaf of the Ian McEwan. How bizarre that your hand was part of your body, like one of those mechanical grabbers that picked up furry toys in a glass case at a fair. You could imagine it having a mind of its own and strangling you at night.

Mine with storms of care opprest

Is taught to pity the distrest.

Mean wretches' grief can touch,

So soft, so sensible my breast,

But ah! I fear, I pity his too much.

He was thinking about that girl who'd turned up in casualty last week. Nikki Fallon? Hallam? Nine years old, jewel-green eyes and greasy blond hair. He knew even before he'd done the X-rays. Some­thing too malleable about her, too flat, one of those kids who had never been given the opportunity to disagree and had given up trying. Six old fractures and no hospital record. He went to tell the stepfather they'd be keeping her in. The man was slumped in one of the plas­tic chairs looking bored mostly, tracksuit trousers and a dirty black T-shirt with the word BENCH on it. The man who'd abused her, or let others abuse her. He stank of cigarettes and aftershave. Richard wanted to knock him down and punch him and keep on punching him. We need to talk.

Yeh?

Richard's anger draining away. Because he was hardly more than a teenager. Too stupid to know he'd end up in prison. Sugar and boil­ing water thrown in his face on kitchen duty. If you could come with me, please.

Melissa rolled up the sleeves of Dad's lumberjack shirt. Still, after all this time, the faintest smell of him. Plaster dust and Hugo Boss. He was an arsehole, but, God, she looked at Richard sometimes, the racing bike, the way he did the crossword in pencil first. Th ere were evenings when she wanted Dad to ride in off the plains, all dust and sweat and tumbleweed, kick open the saloon doors and stick some bullet holes in those fucking art books.

Land of hope and glory, sang Mika. Mother of the free ride, I'm leav­ing Kansas, baby. God save the queen.

Hereford, home of the SAS. Richard could imagine doing that, given a Just War. Not the killing so much as the derring-do, like build­ing dams when he was a boy, though it might be thrilling to kill another man if one were absolved in advance. Because people thought you wanted to help others whereas most of his colleagues loved the risk. That glint in Steven's eye when he moved to pediatrics. They die quicker.

Louisa had squeezed his hand at the graveside. Drizzle and a police helicopter overhead. That ownerless dog standing between the trees like some presiding spirit, his father's ghost, perhaps. He looked around the grave. These people. Louisa, Melissa, Angela and Dominic and their children, this was his family now. They had spent twenty years avoiding one another and he couldn't remember why.

Melissa pressed Pause and gazed out of the window. Bright sun was falling on the road but there was rain far off, like someone had tried to rub out the horizon. That underwater glow. There'd be Scrab­ble, wouldn't there, a tatty box in some drawer, a pack of fift y-one playing cards, a pamphlet from a goat farm.

Real countryside now, the land buckled and rucked. A sense sub­lime of something far more deeply interfused. Blustery wind, trees danc­ing, flurries of orange leaves, a black plastic sack flapping on a gate. The road a series of bends and switchbacks. Richard driving too fast. Low pearly cloud. Turnastone. Upper Maes-Coed. Llanveynoe. They broached the top of a hill and the view was suddenly enormous. Offa's Dyke, said Richard. A dark ridge halfway up the sky. They made their way into the valley on a single-track road sunk between grassy banks like a bobsleigh run. Richard still driving too fast and Mum gripping the edge of the seat but not saying anything and ... Shit! yelled Louisa, and Fuck! yelled Melissa, and the Mercedes skidded to a crunchy halt, but it was just a flock of sheep and an old man in a dirty jumper wav­ing a stick.

Two gliders ride the freezing gray air that pours over the ridge, so low you could lean a ladder against the fuselage and climb up to talk to the pilot. Spits of horizontal rain, Hay Bluff, Lord Hereford's Knob. Heather and purple moor grass and little craters of rippling peaty water. By the trig point a red kite weaves through the holes in the wind then glides into the valley, eyes scanning the ground for rats and rabbits.

This was shallow coastal waters once, before the great plates crushed and raised it. Limestone and millstone grit. The valleys gouged out by glaciers with their cargo of rubble. Upper Blaen, Firs Farm, Olchon Court. Roads and footpaths following the same routes they did in the Middle Ages. Everyone walking in the steps of those who walked before them. The Red House, a Romano-British farmstead abandoned, ruined, plundered for stone, built over, burnt and rebuilt. Tenant farmers, underlings of Marcher lords, a pregnant daughter hidden in the hills, a man who put a musket in his mouth in front of his wife and sprayed half his head across the kitchen wall, a drunken priest who lost the house in a bet over a horse race, or so they said, though they are long gone. Two brass spoons under the floorboards. A 20,000-reichsmark banknote. Letters from Florence cross-written to save paper, now brown and frail and crumpled to pack a wall.

Brother, my Lungs are not Goode. The sons of the family cut down at Flers-Courcelette and Morval. Two aging sisters hanging on through the Second World War, one succumbing to cancer of the liver, the other shipped off to a nursing home in Builth Wells. Cream paint and stripped pine. The fire blanket in its red holster. The Shentons— 22nd to 29th March—We saw a deer in the garden ... Framed water­colors of mallow and campion. Biodegradable washing-up liquid. A random selection of elderly, secondhand hardbacks. A pamphlet from a goat farm.

Dominic had asked for a people carrier but a Viking with an ear­ring and a scar appeared in a metallic green Vauxhall Insignia. They had bags on their laps and the windows were steamed up and spat­tery with rain. Benjy was squashed between Mum and Daisy which he enjoyed because it made him feel safe and warm. He had been lonely at home because he wasn't allowed to play with Pavel for a week after the fight and getting blood all over Pavel's trousers, but he enjoyed being on holiday, not least because you were allowed pudding every night. He had never spoken to Uncle Richard but he knew that he was a radiologist who put tubes into people's groins and pushed them up into their brains to clear blockages like chimney sweeps did and this was a glorious idea. An articulated lorry came past riding a wave of spray and for a few seconds the car seemed to be underwater, so he imagined being in the shark submarine from Red Rackham's Treasure.

Alex totted up how much the holiday was going to cost him. Two missed shifts at the video shop, two dog walks. A hundred and twenty-three quid down. But the hills would be good. Lots of kids thought he was boring. He couldn't give a fuck. If you didn't earn money you were screwed. He'd get through college without a loan at this rate. He rubbed his forehead. Tightness behind his left eye and that sour taste in the back of his throat. Fifteen minutes and the pain would arrive, flurries of lime-green snow sweeping across his field of vision. He opened the window a crack and breathed in the cold air. He needed darkness. He needed quiet.

Oi, said Dad, but when he turned he saw the expression on Alex's face. Do we need to pull over?

Alex shook his head.

Ten minutes, OK?

They turned off the main road and suddenly they were out of the rain, the world cleaned and glittering. They roller-coastered over a lit­tle summit and Offa's Dyke hoved into view, a gash of gold along the ridge, as if the sky had been ripped open and the light from beyond was pouring through.

Holy shit, Batman, said Benjy, and no one told him off.

Beeswax and fresh linen. Louisa stood in the center of the bed­room. A hum from deep underground, just on the limit of hearing, a chill in the air. Hairs stood up on the back of her neck. Someone had suffered in this room. She'd felt it since childhood, in this house, in that corridor. Then Craig bought Danes Barn and she couldn't bear to be in there for more than five minutes. He told her she was being ridiculous. A week later she heard about the little boy who'd hidden in the chest freezer.

Melissa walked down the cold tiles of the hall and into the bright rectangle of the day. She took her earphones out. That silence, like a noise all by itself, with all these other noises inside it, grass rubbing together, a dog yapping far off. She dried the rain from the bench with a tea towel and sat down with Enduring Love, but she couldn't hang on to the words because she'd never spent more than five consecutive days in the countryside before. Kellmore in Year 11. Ziplines and Bacardi Breezers. Kasha's epileptic fit in the showers. There really was abso­lutely nothing to do here. She had two joints at the bottom of her bag but she'd have to smoke them up there with the sheep. Richard stoned. Jesus. Imagine that. Goodness, I don't think I've realized how amazing this Mozart Piano Concerto is. We haven't got any more biscuits, have we? But it was beautiful, when you thought about it, this huge green bowl, clouds changing shape as they moved, the smell of woodsmoke. A banana-yellow caterpillar reared up like a tiny question mark on the arm of the bench. She was about to flick it away when she imagined it having a name in a children's book, but suddenly there was a green taxi bumping through the gate and Alex and his little brother spilled from the door like clowns from a circus car.

... stunning views of the Olchon Valley ... Grade 2 listed ... sym­pathetically restored ... a second bathroom added ... large private gar­den ... shrubbery, mature trees ... drowning hazard ... mixer taps ... a tumble dryer ... no TV reception ... £1,200 per week ... all reasonable breakages ... American Express ... the septic tank ...

Dominic helped the driver unload while Benjy retrieved the brief­case hinge from a crumb-filled recess. Richard hugged Angela with one arm, his mug of tea at arm's length. Post-rain sparkle and the dog still yapping far off. Daisy shook Richard's hand and unnerved him slightly by saying, It's good to see you again, as if she was a colleague, so he turned to Benjamin. And how are you doing, young man?

Melissa held Alex's eye for two seconds and he forgot briefly about the nausea. Unzipping. Maybe normal service really was being sus­pended. But Melissa saw how much he wanted her and how naïve he was and the week no longer seemed empty. She walked slowly toward the front door, his gaze like sun on her back. Bitch, thought Angela, but Alex could see the first flurries of green snow and had to get to the bathroom. She had that glossy, thoroughbred look, thought Daisy. Hair you shook in slow motion. Leader of some icy little coven at school. But being fashionable and popular were shallow things which passed away. Daisy had to remember that. Shallow people were people nevertheless, and equally deserving of love.

The Vauxhall Insignia did a four-point turn and drove off scrap­ing its manifold on the ruts and there was silence in the garden so that the red kite, looking down, saw only a large square of mown grass tilted toward the opposite side of the valley and, sitting confidently at its geometric center, a house, stately and severe and adamantly not a farmhouse. Tall sash windows, gray stone laid in long, thin blocks, a house where Eliot or Austen might have lodged a vicar and his fierce teetotal sisters. A drystone wall ran round the boundary of the prop­erty, broken by two gates, one for walkers, one for carriages, both of ornate cast iron now thick with rust. A weather vane in the shape of a running fox. There were rhododendrons and a shallow ornamen­tal pond thick with frog spawn. There was the skull of a horse in the woodshed.

Alex sluiced his mouth under the cold tap and felt his way back across the landing with his eye closed. He lowered himself onto the bed, put the pillow over his head to cut out light and noise and curled into a ball.

Angela had been trapped by Louisa in the kitchen with a glass of red wine. That expensive mildew taste. Melissa's vegetarian. I'd happily give up meat as well, but Richard is a bit of a caveman.

Why did she dislike this woman? The cream roll-neck, the way she held the measuring jug up to the light, for example, as if it were a syringe and a life hung in the balance. Onions fizzed in the pan. She thought about Carl Butcher killing that cat last term. They were swing­ing it against a wall, Miss. She'd recognized the policeman from Cycle Proficiency. Carl's hard little face. All those boys, they knew the world didn't want them, bad behavior their only way of making some small mark. But people eat cows. Most intelligent thing he'd said all year.

God alone knows how she's going to survive here, said Louisa. A hun­dred miles from the nearest branch of Jack Wills.

A yellow tractor and the sun setting over Offa's Dyke, tumble­down barns with corrugated iron roofs, the hill so steep Daisy felt as if she were looking out of a plane window, no noise but the wind. She could have reached out and picked that tractor up between her thumb and forefinger. This was Eden. It wasn't a fairy story, it was happening right now. This was the place we were banished from. A bird of prey floated up the valley until it was swallowed by the green distance. The fizzy tingle of vertigo in the arches of her feet. The cen­turies would swallow us like the sky swallowing that bird. She and Melissa had passed one another on the landing earlier. She said hello but Melissa just stared at her as they moved around one another, spa­ghetti western–style, everything in slo-mo.

A red Volvo was zigzagging slowly up from Longtown, vanish­ing and reappearing with the kinks in the road. Down the hill she could see Benjy in the walled garden doing ninja moves with a stick. Oof ... ! Yah ... ! No one could see her out here, no one could judge her. She looked at herself in the mirror and saw the animal that she was trapped inside, that grew and fed and wanted. She wished above all else to look ordinary so that people's eyes just slid over her. Because Mum was wrong. It wasn't about believing this or that, it wasn't about good and evil and right and wrong, it was about finding the strength to bear the discomfort that came with being in the world.

Clouds scrolled high up. She couldn't get Melissa out of her head. Something magnetic about her, the possibility of a softness inside, the challenge of peeling back those layers.

Beers in hand, Dominic and Richard stood looking over the gar­den wall, gentlemen on the foredeck, a calm, green sea beyond. Angela tells me you've got yourself a job in a books hop. Dominic had been unem­ployed for nine months, apparently. Bespoke or chain?

Waterstones, said Dominic. Best job I've ever done, to be honest. He looked up. No contrails because of the volcanic ash. The way the fields stopped halfway up the hill and gave way to gorse and bracken and scree, that darkness where the summit met the sky, Mordor and the Shire within fifty yards of each other.

Really? asked Richard. But how did one lose one's job if one was self-employed? Surely one simply had more or less work coming in. A talented musician, too. Richard remembered visiting their house some years back and Dominic entertaining the children with a jazz version of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" and the Blue Peter theme tune in the style of Beethoven. But he made his living composing music for adverts, washing powder and chocolate bars. Richard found it hard to comprehend anyone embarking upon a career without aiming for the top. Which applied to Angela as well, though she was a woman with children, which was different. And now he'd let it all slip through his fingers.

Amazing place, said Dominic, rotating slowly to take in the whole panorama.

You're welcome, said Richard.

Benjy pauses by the hall table and leafs idly through The Guar­dian. He is fascinated by newspapers. Sometimes he stumbles on things that terrify him, things he wishes he could undiscover. Rape, suicide bombers. But the pull of adult secrets is too strong. Four thou­sand square miles of oil drifting from the Deepwater Horizon rig ... Thirty people killed by bombs in Mogadishu ... Fifty tonnes of litter found in a whale's stomach ... He has been thinking a lot about death lately. Carly's dad from school who had a heart attack, aged forty-three. Granny's funeral. There was a woman on the television who had anal cancer.

He puts the paper down and begins exploring the house, entering every room in turn and making a mental map of escape routes and places where enemies might be hiding. He can't go into the bedroom because Alex is having a migraine so he heads downstairs in search of a knife to make a spear but Auntie Louisa is in the kitchen so he goes outside and finds a big stick in the log shed. He hacks off a zombie's head and blood sprays from the neck stump and the head lies on the ground shouting in German until it is crushed under one of his horse's hooves.

Alex slid his legs over the edge of the bed and sat up slowly, shirt soaked in sweat. His head felt bruised and the color of everything was off-key, as if he were trapped inside a film from the sixties. At least Melissa hadn't seen him like this. When it happened at school he had to actually go and lie down in the sick bay. He tried to pass it off as an aggressive adversary he overcame by being tough and stoical, but he knew that some kids thought it was a spazzy thing like epi­lepsy or really thick glasses. He rubbed his face. He could smell onion frying downstairs and hear Benjy battling imaginary foes outside. Oof ... ! Yah ... !

Melissa popped open the clattery little Rotring tin. Pencils, putty rubber, scalpel. She sharpened a 3B, letting the curly shavings fall into the wicker bin, then paused for a few seconds, finding a little place of stillness before starting to draw the flowers. Art didn't count at school because it didn't get you into law or banking or medicine. It was just a fluffy thing stuck to the side of design and technology, a free A Level for kids who could do it, like a second language, but she loved charcoal and really good gouache, she loved rolling sticky black ink onto a lino plate and heaving on the big black arm of the Cope press, the quiet and those big white walls.

Daisy walked into the living room and found Alex sitting on the sofa drinking a pint of iced water and staring at the empty fireplace. How are you doing?

Top of the world. He held up his glass in a fake toast. The ice jiggled and clinked. Always these stilted conversations, like strangers at a cocktail party. I went for a walk up the hill. It's, like, Alex World up there. He seemed confused for a moment, as if trying to remember where he was. Yeh, I guess so.

A couple of years back he'd been a puppy, unable to sit down for a whole meal, falling off the trampoline and using his plastered arm as a baseball bat. They'd played chase and snakes and ladders and hide-and-seek with Benjy and watched TV lying on top of one another like sleeping lions. He seemed like another species now, so unimpressed by life. Dad's breakdown hardly touched him. She'd read one of his history essays once, something about the economic problems in Ger­many before the Second World War and the Jews being used as scape­goats, and she was amazed to realize that there was a person in there who thought and felt. What do you reckon to Melissa?

She's all right.

He was talking rubbish. He obviously fancied her because boys couldn't think about anything else. She wanted to laugh and grab his hair, start one of the play fights they used to have, but there was a force field, and the rules had changed. She reached out to touch the back of his neck but stopped a couple of centimeters short. See you at supper.

You will indeed.

Richard opened the squeaky iron door of the stove. Ash flakes rose and sett led on the knees of his trousers. He scrunched a newspaper from the big basket. PORT-AU-PRINCE DEVASTATED. A grainy photo of a small boy being pulled from the rubble. No one really cared until there were cute children suffering. All those little blond girls with leukemia while black teenagers in London were being stabbed every day of the week. He flirted with the possibility of a firelighter but it seemed unmanly, so he built a tepee of kindling around the crumpled paper. An image of the Sharne girl passed through his mind. She rowed for Upper Thames. Think of something else. He struck a match. Swan Vesta. The way they lay in the box reminded him of the stacked trunks by Thorpe sawmill. The paper caught and the flame was an orange banner in a gale. He closed the door and opened the vent. Air roared in. His knees hurt. He needed to do more exercise. He imagined mak­ing love with Louisa later on, the cleanness of her skin after a shower, the cocoa-butter body wash that made her taste like cake.

They're hiding in the trees, said Daisy, with bows and arrows. And we've got the secret plans.

Secret plans for what?

She peeled a lump of moss off the edge of the bench. For a moon rocket.

This is boring, said Benjy.

She thought about the men with bows and arrows. They were really here, weren't they, once upon a time. And mammoths and ladies in crinolines and Spitfires overhead. Places remained and time flowed through them like wind through the grass. Right now. This was the future turning into the past. One thing becoming another thing. Like a flame on the end of a match. Wood turning into smoke. If only we could burn brighter. A barn roaring in the night.

Angela looked out of the bedroom window. Dominic and Richard chatting at the edge of the garden, the way men did, beer in one hand, the other hand thrust into a trouser pocket, both staring straight ahead. She wondered what they were talking about and what they were avoiding talking about. Forty-seven years old and she still felt a fifteen-year-old girl's anger at the younger brother who had teamed up with Mum and frozen her out after Dad died. She took the Dairy Milk from the bottom of her case, tore back the paper and the purple foil, snapped off the top row of chunks and put them into her mouth. That nursery rush. Mum and Richard had visited Dad in hospital the day before he died. Angela wasn't allowed to go and she was haunted for months afterward by a recurring nightmare in which they had conspired somehow to cause his death. Someone banged a large pan downstairs and shouted, Dinner, like they were guests in a country house. Flunkies and silver salvers. She'd better go and join the fray.

Daisy, please. Angela reached out to grab her sleeve. Not now. But Dominic was standing in the way and she couldn't reach.

What were you going to say? asked Richard.

Grace, replied Daisy. I was going to say grace.

The room snapped into focus, wine bottles green as boiled sweets, galleons on the table mats. Melissa let her mouth hang open comically.

Fire away, said Richard who was accustomed to situations where other people felt uncomfortable.

Oh Lord ... People drifted through life with their eyes closed. You had to wake them up. We thank You for this food, we thank You for this family and we ask You to provide for those who have no food, and to watch over those who have no family.

Amen and a-women, said Benjy.

Excellent. Richard rubbed his hands together, Melissa said, Fuck­ing Nora, under her breath and the scrape of chairs on the flagstones was like a brace of firecrackers. Louisa lifted the red enameled lid of the big pot and steam spilled upward.

Alex looked over at Daisy and gave her a thumbs-up. Nice one, sister.

Dominic poured two centimeters of wine into Benjy's wineglass. Is this place not wonderful? asked Richard, widening his arms to indicate the house, the valley, the countryside, perhaps life itself.

Louisa was frightened of talking to Daisy. She didn't know any proper Christians, but Daisy said, I love that sweater, and suddenly it wasn't so bad after all.

Richard raised his glass. To us, and everyone raised their glasses. To us. Benjy drank his wine in one gulp.

Melissa saw Daisy and Mum laughing together. She wanted to force them apart, but there was something steely about the girl. She wouldn't back down easily, would she.

Alex couldn't stop looking at Melissa. That terrible yearning in his stomach. He was imagining her in the shower, foam in her pubes.

Angela looked at Richard and thought, We have nothing in com­mon, nothing, but Richard eased back into his chair. You remember that dead squirrel we found on the roundabout in the park? He swung the wine around in his glass like a man in a bad advert for wine. We thought it was a miracle.

How do you remember this stuff ? But why had she forgotten? That was the real question. He closed his eyes as if running a slide show in his mind's eye. The tapestry cushion covers. God Almighty. Cats, roses, angels . . .

She felt obscurely violated. This was her past too, but he had stolen it and made it his own. Fuck. Melissa leapt to her feet, tomato sauce all over her trousers. You little shit.

Hey, hey, hey. Louisa raised her hands but Melissa swept out.

I'm sorry, said Benjy. I'm really really sorry. He was crying.

Come here, little man. Dominic hugged him. You didn't mean to do it.

But Alex felt a weight lift. No more sexual interference messing with his head. Teenage girls, said Richard to the table in general, his tone neutral, as if he were opening the subject up for discussion. Yes, she remembered now. The dead squirrel. So perfect, the tiny claws, as if it had simply laid down to sleep.

Can I have some more wine? asked Benjy.

Th is tastes good.

Morrisons in Ross-on-Wye, amazingly.

Nine weeks we had the builders in.

He went to Eton.

Ouch.

There's plasters in my toilet bag.

Twenty stone at least.

You got blood in the Parmesan.

She had a fractured skull.

Fifty press-ups.

Apple crumble.

A quarter of a million people.

Brandy? Cigars?

Dizzee with a doublee ...

And then the Hoover blew up. Literally blew up.

Sit down. I'll do the washing up.

I'm stuffed.

Bedtime, young man.

Up in them thar hills.

Good night, Benjy.

Daisy, will you read to him?

Teeth. Remember what the lady said.

Night, Benjy.

Night-night.

She sat on the floor between the bedside table and the wall. Laugh­ter downstairs. She pushed the point of the scalpel into the palm of her hand but she couldn't puncture the skin. She was a coward. She would never amount to anything. That fuck-wit little boy. She should walk off into the night and get hypothermia and end up in hospital. That would teach them a lesson. God. Friday night. Megan and Cally would be tanking up on vodka and Red Bull before hitting the ice rink. The dizzy spin of the room and Lady Gaga on repeat, Henry and his mates having races and getting chucked out, pineapple fritters at the Chinky's afterward. Christ, she was hungry.

Paolo's father died and he went back to Italy. Dominic handed Louisa a wet plate. And I discovered that I wasn't very good at selling myself. He tipped the dirty water out of the bowl and refilled it from the hot tap.

I was in a band at college. I thought I'd be famous. Sounds ridiculous now. We were into Pink Floyd. Everyone else was listening to the Clash. I was listening to Michael Jackson. She held up her hands, begging forgiveness.

Eventually you realize you're ordinary.

Melissa appeared at the door and Louisa pressed the Start but­ton on the microwave. Dominic saw that there was a bowl of apple crumble already in there, waiting. While it turned and hummed in the little window Louisa laid her hand on Melissa's forearm for three or four seconds as if performing some kind of low-grade spiritual healing. She took a pot of yogurt from the fridge, a spoon from the drawer and laid them neatly beside one another on the work surface. Thanks, said Melissa quietly and for a fraction of a second Dominic saw the little girl under the veneer.

The trees were thinning up ahead and Joseph could see gashes of sun­light between the trunks. He picked up speed and ten seconds later he stumbled out from between the pines into a space so big and bright that he stood on the little beach, stunned, trying to take it in. (Daisy shifted posi­tion to make her back more comfortable.) They were looking at a lake, rippled and silver under the gray sky. They had been living underground for so long it felt like the ocean. Mellor opened the map. "We've arrived," he said.

"What do you mean?" asked Joseph.

(Benjy's eyelids were gett ingheavy.)

Mellor pointed out across the water. "The house is out there."

Joseph's heart sank. "The map has to be wrong."

"Ssshh . . ." Mellor put his finger to his lips.

In the distance Joseph could hear the faint barking of dogs. The Smoke Men were coming.

(Benjy closed his eyes and turned over.)

Mellor stuff ed the map hurriedly into his rucksack. "Quick. Take off your boots."

Richard pulled his shirt over his head. She has to learn some manners.

She's sixteen.

I don't care how old she is.

You can't force children to do anything.

So you let them do exactly what they want?

Richard, you are not her father. Sorry. I didn't mean that ...

No, I'm sorry. He shook his head like a dog coming out of water.

It's the Sharne case. It's getting to me. You did nothing wrong. Being innocent is not always enough. Come here. But he wouldn't come. I'm going outside to clear my head.

Dominic stared at the black grid of the uncurtained window. If only he could fly away. How had he not seen the danger when Amy came into the shop that day? Blond eyebrows, albino almost. They'd talked in the playground six years before. Two boys a couple of years above Daisy. She lingered at the till and he wondered if she was flirting but it had been so long that he found it hard to be certain. Then she mentioned her address in a way that was clearly an invitation which could be ignored without embarrassment and he dreamt that night of her long pale body with a vividness he had not felt since he was twenty . They slept together three weeks later in the middle of the aft r­noon, something he and Angela had never done, and this in itself was thrilling. She made a great deal of noise so that he wondered, briefly, if she were in actual pain. They lay afterward looking up at the big Japanese paper lantern turning in the dusty curtained glow and Amy said, Thank you, kind sir. He turned onto his side and ran his fingers over her hip bones and her little breasts and into deep dints above her collarbones and realized there was a secret door in the house where he had been trapped for so long.

Angela was two hundred miles and thirty-five years away, trying to conjure the hallway of the house where she'd grown up, the newel post they called The Pineapple, the china tramp that lay on the carpet smashed one morning as if a ghost had brushed past in the night, the Oscar Peterson Trio on the gramophone. Dominic climbed into bed and the bounce of the mattress woke her briefly. She listened to the silence and thought of Benjy and felt the old fear. Was he still breath­ing? A cracked wooden beam ran across the ceiling, splinted with a rusty iron spar. She was slipping away a little now. Sherbet Dabs and Slade singing "Cum on Feel the Noize." Briefly she saw Karen sitting in the darkness somewhere farther up the hill, looking down on the sleeping house, like a rabbit or an owl. Then she let go.

Daisy opened the book and put the Monet postcard to one side.

I sat down beside her, and presently she moved uneasily. At the same moment there came a sort of dull flapping or buffeting at the window. I went over to it softly, and peeped out by the corner of the blind. There was a full moonlight, and I could see that the noise was made by a great bat, which wheeled around, doubtless attracted by the light, although so dim, and every now and again struck the window with its wings.

Fingernail moon. The Sea of Rainbows. The Sea of Tranquility. Richard had never really got the space thing. It worried him, the possi­bility that his imagination wasn't strong enough to get past the earth's atmosphere. Neil Armstrong's heart rate staying under seventy during takeoff. All brave men are slightly stupid. He and Mohan had sat oppo­site each other at the table by the window. He can see it as clear as day. Mohan was eating a container of M&S salad with a white plastic fork. It could be an abscess. Of course he should have put it in the report, that was precisely why he had tracked Mohan down, to make sure. Now the girl was in a wheelchair and Mohan was pretending the conversa­tion never happened. Everyone knew the man was a shit, sleeping with two nurses and his poor bloody wife without a clue, which counted for nothing in a court of law, of course, just gossip and hearsay. The way the lawyer stared at him during that meeting. He half expected his eyelids to slide in from the side. Bloody hell, it was freezing out here.

With a little grunt, Alex came messily into the cone of toilet tissue in his right hand then leant back against the door, breathing heavily. That sudden disinterest, pictures of Melissa naked blowing away like mist. He wiped the splash from the wooden floor with the toe of his sock. He was thinking about canoeing on Llyn Gwynant. Then he was thinking about how quiet the house was and whether anyone had heard him. Richard's shaving brush glared from the windowsill. He imagined it containing a little camera. Richard sitting at the dining table replaying the grainy footage, saying, Angela, I think you should see this. He dropped the tissue into the toilet bowl, pulled the flush and smelt his fingers. Seasidey. Nice.

You run your hand along the bumpy magnolia wall. Paint over paint over plaster over stone, smooth, like the flank of a horse. Some­thing alive in the fabric of the house. Earlier today, in Caffè Ritazza at Southport, Richard had put his hands behind his head and stretched out as if he owned the place. Polo shirt, TAG Heuer watch. A young mum was staring from a nearby table, pink tracksuit, scraped-back hair. He looked through her like she was furniture. But Melissa does have to learn some manners, and maybe you haven't been strict enough. You remember yourself at fourteen. The Hanwell flat. You and Penny standing on the outside of the balcony rail, seven floors up, one Sunday afternoon, leaning over that woozy drop, hearts pound­ing and the scary tickle in the back of your knees. Dogs in the park, the traffic on the ring road, a scale model of the world. You whoop as loud as you can and your voice bounces off the block opposite. There's a little crowd gathering now. Someone shouts, Jump. You look around and it occurs to you that this isn't real, this is only a memory, that you could let go and topple into that great windy nothing and it wouldn't matter. What frightens you is that for a couple of seconds you can't remember where the present is and how to get back there.

The click of the Mercedes cooling. A barn owl on top of a telegraph pole, eyeballs so big they rub against one another as they revolve. Bats slice the air above the garden. Limestone freakishly white under the moon. The sheep lie beside an old bath, still gathered against the wolves which haven't hunted them for two hundred years. The deep quiet under the human hum. Bootes, Hercules, Draco. Eight thou­sand man-made objects orbiting the earth. Dead satellites and space junk. The asteroid belt. Puck, Miranda, Oberon. To every moon a fairy story. The Mars Rover squatting near the Husband Hills. The Huygens probe beside a methane lake on Titan. The Kuiper belt. Com­ets and centaurs. The scattered disc. The Oort cloud. The Local Bub­ble. Barnard's Star. The utter cold warmed only by starlight.

Richard made his way down the dark stairs. He couldn't use the bathroom on the landing because of the tangled pipes under the sink. Tubing, plumbing, large bore wiring. Phobia never quite described it. A discrete period of intense fear or discomfort in which at least four of the fol­lowing thirteen symptoms develop abruptly ... The four in his case being a choking sensation, feelings of unreality, abdominal distress and a fear of going insane. He couldn't use car park E at work because it meant walking past the ducts at the back of the heating block. Last year he'd been standing on the Circle Line platform at Edgware Road en route to a conference in Reading. The brickwork on the far side of the tracks invisible behind a great rolling wave of sooty cables. He came round with a gash on his head looking up at a ring of people who seemed to have gathered to watch a fight in the playground.

He unbuttoned his pajama fly and aimed just left of the water to minimize the noise. He should get his prostate checked. The floor was cobbled and cold and the walls smelled of damp but the sink down here was enclosed in a wooden cabinet and the ribbed white shower flex was single and therefore benign. He flushed the toilet and washed his hands. Bed.

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