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Mr. Mac and Me

by Esther Freud

Hardcover, 296 pages, Gardners Books, List Price: $27.90 |

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Mr. Mac and Me
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Esther Freud

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NPR Summary

In 1914 Suffolk, Thomas Maggs, the son of the local publican, befriends the mysterious architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh, known to the locals as "Mac." When war breaks out against Germany, the locals become increasingly suspicious of Mac and his curious behavior.

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Excerpt: 'Mr. Mac And Me'

I was born upstairs in the small bedroom, not in the smallest room with the outshot window, where I sleep now, or the main room that is kept for guests — summer visitors who write and let us know that they are coming and how long they plan to stay. Sometimes, after a night's drinking, folk may rest there, although Mother always takes their money off them first. If she doesn't they wake up and protest they don't know how they came to be lying in that fine wide bed, say they've been apprehended and held there, in comfort against their will. But that is at harvest time, when men and boys come to wash away the wheat chaff tickling their throats, or in high summer when they've spent the day thin-ning out the wild oats from hay. But I was born in winter, the sea storming on the beach beyond, roaring through the night, louder than my mother, whose ninth child I was.

My father was over at Sogg's Fen searching out a rabbit, and when he came back in he brought with him news that three fishermen from Dunwich had been lost at sea. The bell was ringing in the church there, Mother swore she could hear it through the storm, and she laid me against her chest and cried so hard she nearly drowned me with her tears. 'What is it?' my sister Mary was tending her. 'Will he not feed neither?' But Mother said she knew someone had to be taken that night, and sinful as it was, she was just so very grateful that it wasn't me.

My father gave the rabbit to Mary to skin and gut, and he climbed into bed himself, knocked sideways with the spirits he'd drunk to keep away his fright.

'We can't both be lying down,' my mother shoved him, 'or this boy will have survived for nothing.' And when he didn't rouse himself she got up and careful as she could she climbed down the ladder, and leaving me beside him, she laid a fire in the public bar in case anyone should come in for a sup.

It was Mother, more than anyone, who had the village in her blood. Born and reared up near the common where her father was a pig man. She'd never wanted to leave, never planned to, but one afternoon she was out on the street when a man pedalled by and winked his eye at her. 'Knives to grind,' he sang over his shoulder and she smiled right back at him. He was an older man, halfway to her father's age, with a ragged look as if he needed someone's caring. But he was smiling as he wheeled around, smiling as he asked her name, and soon he was offering to sharpen the family knives half price. He had his own grinder, made a fair profit if he worked all hours, and when he and Mother married he carried her away to Dunwich where he set himself up as a pork butcher. Mother said she hadn't known how much she liked the pigs till then, their bris- tly grey bodies, rootling and bathing in the sun, the happy way they let their babies snuffle round them, and it pained her to hear their screams rising up from the slaughterhouse beside the shop. She'd never imagined either how much she'd miss the village. She missed the washing flapping on the green, the geese that guarded it, the paths that led away towards the river and the sea. She missed the bracken unfurling in the spring, the pheasants that rose out of it, strolling glossily across the land. 'There's bracken here,' my father told her. 'Up on the heath, and pheasants too, and there's deer as well that come out of the forest.' But what he couldn't know was that they weren't the ones she recognised, they weren't the ones she'd always felt were hers.

On Sundays, in that first year, he gave in to her desire to be back home. He'd sit her on the seat of the old knife-grinding bicycle, and pedal her back across the marshes, through mud and sedge, along sheep paths less than a foot wide, screaming as they nearly tipped into the river. They had to get off to lift the bicycle over a stile at Bridge Farm and wheel it across a cattle grid at the start of Dingle Marsh, but once she was heavy with her first child, they took to walking, stretching their steps against the drawing in of evening, until the days grew too short and she too large. Then, often as not, they stayed in Dunwich where they went to the lepers' church up by the turn-ing. She knelt by her husband's side, pressing her swollen knees into the wood, and wished herself thankful for every-thing she had.

From Mr. Mac And Me by Esther Freud. Copyright 2014 by Esther Freud. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing.