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A God in Ruins

by Kate Atkinson

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Ursula's younger brother Teddy, who survived wartime service, struggles with family life against a backdrop of a changing world.

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Kate Atkinson says she never sees her characters at just one stage of their lives. Just as we are constantly thinking about the past, present and future in real life, she constructs her characters in the same way. Euan Myles/Courtesy Hachette Book Group hide caption

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Kate Atkinson Tells Book Club How She Crafts Characters At All Life Stages

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Bombs Blast And Time Marches On In 'A God In Ruins'

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Join The 'Morning Edition' Book Club As We Read 'A God In Ruins'

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

Excerpt: A God In Ruins

1925

Alouette

"See!" he said. "There— a lark. A skylark." He glanced up at her and saw that she was looking in the wrong place. "No, over there," he said, pointing. She was completely hopeless.

"Oh," she said at last. "There, I see it! How queer— what's it doing?"

"Hovering, and then it'll go up again probably." The skylark soared on its transcendental thread of song. The quivering flight of the bird and the beauty of its music triggered an unexpectedly deep emotion in him. "Can you hear it?"

His aunt cupped a hand to an ear in a theatrical way. She was as out of place as a peacock, wearing an odd hat, red like a pillar-box and stuck with two large pheasant tail-feathers that bobbed around with the slightest movement of her head. He wouldn't be surprised if someone took a shot at her. If only, he thought. Teddy was allowed— allowed himself— barbaric thoughts as long as they remained unvoiced. ("Good manners," his mother counselled, were "the armour that one must don anew every morning.")

"Hear what?" his aunt said eventually.

"The song," he said, mustering patience. "The skylark's song. It's stopped now," he added as she continued to make a show of listening.

"It might begin again."

"No, it won't. It can't, it's gone. Flown away." He flapped his arms to demonstrate. Despite the feathers in her hat, she clearly knew nothing about birds. Or any animals, for that matter. She didn't even possess a cat. She was indifferent to Trixie, their lurcher, currently nosing her way enthusiastically through the dried‑up ditch at the side of the road. Trixie was his most stalwart companion and had been by his side since she was a puppy, when she had been so small that she could squeeze through the front door of his sisters' dolls' house.

Was he supposed to be educating his aunt, he wondered? Was that why they were here? "The lark's known for its song," he said instructively. "It's beautiful." It was impossible to instruct on the subject of beauty, of course. It simply was. You were either moved by it or you weren't. His sisters, Pamela and Ursula, were. His elder brother, Maurice, wasn't. His brother Jimmy was too young for beauty, his father possibly too old. His father, Hugh, had a gramophone recording of "The Lark Ascending" which they sometimes listened to on wet Sunday afternoons. It was lovely but not as lovely as the lark itself. "The purpose of Art," his mother, Sylvie, said—instructed even— "is to convey the truth of a thing, not to be the truth itself." Her own father, Teddy's grandfather, had been a famous artist, dead long ago, a relationship that gave his mother authority on the subject of art. And beauty too, Teddy supposed. All these things— Art, Truth, Beauty— had capital letters when his mother spoke about them.

"When the skylark flies high," he continued rather hopelessly to Izzie, "it means it's fine weather."

"Well, one doesn't need a bird to tell one if it's good weather or not, one simply looks about," Izzie said. "And this afternoon is glorious. I adore the sun," she added, closing her eyes and raising her painted face to the skies.

Who didn't, Teddy thought? Not his grandmother perhaps, who led a gloomy drawing-room life in Hampstead, with heavy cotton nets drawn to prevent the light entering the house. Or perhaps to stop the dark escaping.

"The Knights' Code," which he had learned by heart from Scouting for Boys, a book he frequently turned to in times of uncertainty, even now in his self-exile from the movement, demanded that "Chivalry requireth that youth should be trained to perform the most laborious and humble offices with cheerfulness and grace." He supposed entertaining Izzie was one of those occasions. It was certainly laborious.

He shaded his eyes against the sun and scanned the skies for the skylark. It failed to make a reappearance and he had to make do with the aerial manoeuvres of the swallows. He thought of Icarus and wondered what he would have looked like from the ground. Quite big, he supposed. But Icarus was a myth, wasn't he? Teddy was going to boarding school after the summer holidays and he really must start getting his facts in order. "You will need to be a stoic, old chap," his father advised. "It will be a trial, that's the point of it really, I suppose. Best to keep your head below the parapet," he added. "Neither sink nor float, just sort of paddle about in the middle."

"All the men in the family" went to the school, his Hampstead grandmother said (his only grandmother, Sylvie's mother having died long ago), as if it were a law, written down in ancient times. Teddy supposed his own son would have to go there too, although this boy existed in a future that Teddy couldn't even begin to imagine. He didn't need to, of course, for in that future he had no sons, only a daughter, Viola, something which would be a sadness for him although he never spoke of it, certainly not to Viola, who would have been volubly affronted.

Teddy was taken aback when Izzie unexpectedly started to sing and— more startling— do a little dance. "Alouette, gentille alouette." He knew no French to speak of yet and thought she was singing not "gentille" but "jaunty," a word he rather liked. "Do you know that song?" she asked him.

"No."

"It's from the war. The French soldiers sang it." The fleeting shadow of something— sorrow, perhaps— passed across her features, but then just as suddenly she said gleefully, "The lyrics are quite horrible. All about plucking the poor swallow. Its eyes and feathers and legs and so on."

In that inconceivable yet inevitable war still to come— Teddy's war— Alouette was the name of 425 Squadron, the French Canadians. In February of '44, not long before his last flight, Teddy made an emergency landing at their base at Tholthorpe, two engines on fire, shot up as they crossed the Channel. The Quebecers gave his crew brandy, rough stuff that they were nonetheless grateful for. Their squadron badges showed a swallow above the motto Je te plumerai and he had thought about this day with Izzie. It was a memory that seemed to belong to someone else.

Izzie did a pirouette. "What larks!" she said, laughing. Was this, he wondered, what his father meant when he said Izzie was "ludicrously unstable"?

"Pardon me?"

"What larks," Izzie repeated. "Great Expectations. Haven't you read it?" For a surprising moment she sounded like his mother. "But, of course, I was making a joke. Because there isn't one any longer. The lark, I mean. Flown orf. Gorn," she said in a silly cockney accent. "I've eaten lark," she added in an offhand way. "In Italy. They're considered a delicacy over there. There's not much eating on a lark, of course. No more than a mouthful really."

Teddy shuddered. The idea of the sublime little bird being plucked from the sky, of its exquisite song being interrupted in full flight, was horrible to him. Many, many years later, in the early Seventies, Viola discovered Emily Dickinson in an American Studies course that was part of her degree. In her scrawly, untamed hand she copied down the first verse of a poem she thought her father would like (too lazy to transcribe the whole of the short poem). "Split the Lark

— and you'll find the Music, Bulb after Bulb, in Silver rolled." He was surprised she had thought of him. She rarely did. He supposed literature was one of the few things they held in common even though they rarely, if ever, discussed it. He considered sending her something in return— a poem, even a few choice lines— as a means of communicating with her. "Hail to thee, blithe spirit! Bird thou never wert" or "Hark, how the cheerful birds do chaunt their lays, and carol of love's praise" or "Ethereal Minstrel! Pilgrim of the sky! Dost thou despise the earth where cares abound?" (Was there a poet who hadn't written about skylarks?) He supposed his daughter would think he was patronizing her in some way. She had an aversion to learning anything from him, possibly from anyone, and so in the end he simply wrote back, "Thank you, very thoughtful of you."

* * * * * * *

Before he could stop himself— the armour of good manners falling away— he said, "It's disgusting to eat a lark, Aunt Izzie."

"Why is it disgusting? You eat chicken and so on, don't you? What's the difference, after all?" Izzie had driven an ambulance in the Great War. Dead poultry could do little to ruffle her emotions.

A world of difference, Teddy thought, although he couldn't help but wonder what a lark would taste like. Thankfully, he was distracted from this thought by Trixie barking extravagantly at something. He bent down to investigate. "Oh, look, a slow worm," he said appreciatively to himself, the lark temporarily forgotten. He picked it up gently in both hands and displayed it to Izzie.

"A snake?" she said, grimacing, snakes apparently having no charms for her.

"No, a slow worm," Teddy said. "Not a snake. Not a worm either. It's a lizard actually." Its bronze-gold-lustred scales gleamed in the sun. This was beauty too. Was there anything in nature that wasn't? Even a slug demanded a certain salutation, although not from his mother.

"What a funny little boy you are," Izzie said.

Teddy didn't consider himself to be a "little" boy. He supposed his aunt— his father's youngest sister— knew less about children than she did about animals. He had no idea why she had kidnapped him. It was a Saturday, after lunch, and he had been mooching around in the garden, making paper planes with Jimmy, when Izzie had swooped on him and cajoled him into going for a walk with her in "the countryside," by which she seemed to mean the lane that ran from Fox Corner to the railway station, hardly nature wild in rock and river. "A little adventure. And a chat. Wouldn't that be fun?" Now he found himself hostage to her whims as she wandered along, asking him strange questions— "Have you ever eaten a worm? Do you play at cowboys and Indians? What do you want to be when you grow up?" (No. Yes. A train driver.)

Carefully, he placed the slow worm back in the grass and to make up for her failure with the skylark he offered Izzie the bluebells. "We have to cross the field to get to the wood," he said, looking doubtfully at her shoes. They appeared to be made of alligator skin and were dyed a rather lurid green that no self-respecting alligator would have admitted to. They were brand new and clearly not meant for tramping across fields. It was late afternoon and the dairy herd, whose field it was, was mercifully absent. The cows, huge baggy things with soft inquisitive eyes, would not have known what to make of Izzie.

She ripped a sleeve climbing over the stile and then managed to plunge one of her alligator-clad feet into a cow pat that would have been quite obvious to anyone else. She redeemed herself a little in Teddy's eyes by being admirably and carelessly cheerful about both mishaps. ("I expect," his mother said later, "that she will simply throw the offending articles away.")

She was, however, disappointingly unimpressed by the bluebells. At Fox Corner the annual exhibition was greeted with the same reverence that others accorded the Great Masters. Visitors were trooped proudly out to the wood to admire the seemingly endless blur of blue. "Wordsworth had his daffodils," Sylvie said, "we have our bluebells." They weren't their bluebells, not at all, but his mother's character was inclined to ownership.

Walking back along the lane Teddy felt a sudden unexpected tremor in his breast, a kind of exaltation of the heart. The memory of the lark's song and the sharp green smell of the great bouquet of bluebells that he had picked for his mother combined to make a pure moment of intoxication, a euphoria that seemed to indicate that all the mysteries were about to be revealed. ("There's a world of light," his sister Ursula said. "But we can't see it for the darkness." "Our little Manichean," Hugh said fondly.)

The school was not, of course, unknown to him. Teddy's brother Maurice was up at Oxford now, but when he had been at the school Teddy had often accompanied his mother ("my little chaperone") to prize-givings and Founder's Days and occasionally something called "Visitation" when one day each term parents were allowed—although not particularly encouraged— to visit their children. "More like a penal system than a school," his mother scoffed. Sylvie was not as enthusiastic about the benefits of education as one might have expected her to be.

Considering his allegiance to his old school, his father showed a marked reluctance for any kind of "visitation" to his old haunts. Hugh's absences were explained variously by being tied up with affairs at the bank, important meetings, fretful shareholders. "And so on, and so on," Sylvie muttered. "Going back is usually more painful than going forward," she added as the chapel organ whined its way into the introduction to "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind."

This was two years ago, the prize-giving for Maurice's final term. Maurice had been deputy head boy, the "deputy" in his title making him choleric. "Second in command," he had fumed when he had been appointed at the beginning of his final year. "I see myself as a commander, not a deputy." Maurice believed himself to be made of the stuff of heroes, a man who should lead other men into battle, although he would literally sit out the next war, behind an important desk in Whitehall where the dead were simply inconvenient tables of figures to him. No one in the school chapel on that hot July day in 1923 would have believed that another war could follow so swiftly on the heels of the last. The gilding was still fresh on the names of old boys ("the Honoured Dead") displayed on oak plaques around the chapel. "Much good may 'honour' do them when they're dead," Sylvie whispered crossly in Teddy's ear. The Great War had made Sylvie into a pacifist, albeit a rather belligerent one.

The school chapel had been stifling, drowsiness settling on the pews like a film of dust as the headmaster's voice droned on and on. The sun filtering through the stained-glass windows was transformed into lozenges of jewel-like colours, an artifice that was no substitute for the real thing outside. And now this would soon be Teddy's appointed lot too. A dull prospect of endurance.

When it came to it, school life was not so bad as he had feared. He had friends and was athletic, which always led to a degree of popularity. And he was a kind boy who gave bullies no quarter and that made him popular too, but nonetheless by the time he left and went up to Oxford he had concluded that the school was a brutal and uncivilized place and he would not keep up the callous tradition with his own sons. He expected many— cheerful, loyal and strong— and received instead the distillation (or perhaps reduction) of hope that was Viola.

"Tell me more about yourself," Izzie said, wrenching a stalk of cow parsley from the hedgerow and spoiling the moment.

"What about myself?" he puzzled, the euphoria gone, the mysteries once more veiled from view. Later, in school, he would learn Brooke's poem "The Voice" — "The spell was broken, the key denied me" a fitting description of this moment, but by then—these sensations being ephemeral by their nature— he would have forgotten it.

"Anything," Izzie said.

"Well, I'm eleven years old."

"I know that, silly." (Somehow he doubted that she did.) "What makes you you? What do you like doing? Who are your friends? Do you have a thingamajig, you know—" she said, struggling for alien vocabulary, "David and Goliath— a slingshot thingy?"

"A catapult?"

"Yes! For going around hitting people and killing things and so on."

"Killing things? No! I would never do that." (His brother Maurice, yes.) "I don't even know where it is. I used to use it to get conkers down from the tree."

She looked disappointed by his pacifism but was not to be diverted from the catechism. "What about scrapes? You must get into those, all boys do, don't they? Scrapes and japes."

"Scrapes?" He remembered with a certain horror the incident with the green paint.

"Are you a Boy Scout?" she said, standing to mock attention and giving a smart salute. "I bet you're a Scout. Dyb, dyb, dob and all that."

"Used to be," he muttered. "Used to be a Cub." It was not a topic he wished to explore with her but it was actually impossible for him to lie, as if a spell had been put on him at birth. Both his sisters— and even Nancy— could lie beautifully if necessary, and Maurice and truth (or Truth) were poorly acquainted, but Teddy was deplorably honest.

"Did you get kicked out of the Scouts?" Izzie asked eagerly. "Cashiered? Was there some terrible scandal?"

"Of course not."

"Do tell. What happened?"

The Kinship of the Kibbo Kift happened, Teddy thought. He would probably have to spend hours explaining to Izzie if he so much as mentioned the words.

"Kibbo Kift?" she said. "It sounds like the name of a clown."

How about sweets? Are you very fond of them, for example, and if so, what kind?" A little notebook appeared, alarming Teddy. "Oh, don't mind this," she said. "Everyone takes notes these days. So . . . sweets?"

"Sweets?"

"Sweets," she affirmed and then sighed and said, "You know, dear Teddy, it's just that I don't know any little boys, apart from you. I have often wondered what goes into the making of a boy, apart from the usual slugs and snails and puppy dogs' tails, of course. And a boy," she continued, "is a man in the making. The boy in the man, the man in the boy, and so on." This last said rather absently while considering the cow parsley. "I wonder if you will be like your father when you grow up, for example?"

"I hope so."

"Oh, you mustn't settle for ordinariness, I'm sure I never shall. You must grow up to be quite piratical!" She started to shred the cow parsley to pieces. "Men say that women are mysterious creatures, but I think that's a ruse to deflect us from seeing their absolute incomprehensibility." These last two words said rather loudly and very irritably as if she had a particular person in mind. ("She always has some man or other on the go," he had heard his mother say.) "And what about little girls?" Izzie said.

"What about them?" he puzzled.

"Well, do you have a 'special friend' — you know, a girl you particularly like?" She made a silly, smirking face which he supposed was her attempt (a very poor one) at miming romance or some such other nonsense.

He blushed.

"A little bird tells me," she continued relentlessly, "that you have a bit of a pash on one of the next-door girls."

What little bird, he wondered? Nancy and her clutch of sisters—Winnie, Gertie, Millie and Bea— lived next to Fox Corner in a house called Jackdaws. A great many of these birds roosted in the woods and showed a preference for the Shawcross lawn, on to which Mrs. Shawcross tossed cold toast every morning.

Teddy would not give Izzie Nancy, not under any circumstances, not under torture— which this was. He would not say her name to have it sullied on Izzie's lips and be made fun of. Nancy was his friend, his boon companion, not the stupid soppy sweetheart that Izzie was implying. Of course he would marry Nancy one day and he would love her, yes, but it would be the pure chivalrous love of a knight. Not that he really understood any other kind. He had seen the bull with the cows, and Maurice said that was what people did too, including their mother and father, he sniggered. Teddy was pretty sure he was lying. Hugh and Sylvie were far too dignified for such acrobatics.

"Oh, my, are you blushing?" Izzie crowed. "I do believe I've ferreted out your secret!"

"Pear drops," Teddy said in an effort to put an end to this inquisition.

"What about them?" Izzie said. (She was easily distracted.) The ruined cow parsley was tossed on to the ground. She cared nothing for nature. In her heedlessness she would have trampled through the meadow, kicked over lapwings' nests, terrorized the field mice. She belonged in the city, in a world of machines.

"They're my favourite sweets," he said.

Turning a corner they came across the dairy herd, nudging and bumping their way along the lane as they returned from milking. It must be late, Teddy thought. He hoped he hadn't missed tea.

Excerpted from the book A GOD IN RUINS by Kate Atkinson. Copyright © 2015 by Kate Atkinson. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company.