This novel will open your eyes and break your heart. It is the story of Emma’s two brothers – the one who died five years ago and the one who left home on the day of the funeral and has not returned since.
It is the story of her parents – who have been keeping the truth from Emma, and each other.
It is a story you will want to talk about, and one you will never forget.
Read the first chapter here.
The rain should have disturbed him like it disturbed everyone else. It was wild, it was insistent. It hammered against the windows for attention. The customers had taken on a conspiratorial air, exchanging glances and huddling inside their coats, but he ignored them. He went round closing any open windows so the books didn’t get wet, then returned to the Jewish History section where he was putting the new stock on the shelves.
Inside his head, he insisted on silence. It had been difficult, teaching himself to think of nothing. But he was patient and through hard practice it had become habit. Occasionally, when he was struggling – like now – he’d manage to withdraw. Sometimes he’d picture himself on an island, or alone in the desert. Now, though, he chose the woods. They were still and quiet, waiting to absorb him into their great silence. He stood still among the history books, staring up at the sunlight coming through the leaves.
He was wrenched away by someone touching his arm. Reluctantly, he left the shelter of the trees and turned to find an elderly man behind him.
Jamie was blank for a moment, then put on his work voice. ‘Can I help you, sir?’
‘I have a complaint about your Jewish History section,’ the man said in precise, careful diction, as though he had rehearsed the sentence. ‘I can’t find any of the books I’m looking for. All your books are on the Holocaust.’
‘Yes,’ Jamie said hesitantly. ‘I suppose most of them are.’
‘It’s absurd,’ the man said. He seemed to gather courage as he spoke. ‘Where are your books on Jewish culture, and music, and literature? You make it look as though the Holocaust is the only significant event that’s happened to the Jewish people in their entire history. As if they don’t have a rich and varied past regardless of that particular atrocity.’
Jamie said carefully, ‘We tend to stock what sells, otherwise we lose money. Books on the Holocaust are always in demand.’
‘Because people are fascinated by horror.’
Jamie didn’t know what to say to this, so he kept quiet.
‘I don’t like it,’ the man said. ‘I don’t like the way your shop defines the Jewish people by one awful thing that was done to them, and not by anything they’ve ever done for themselves. Do you see what I’m saying?’
‘To define us by what they did to us is to let them win. History should give equal weight to everything.’
‘How can it?’ said Jamie before he could help himself. ‘Some things loom up and dominate.’
‘Why should we only study what’s considered interesting by people who don’t care about the – the big picture, and only want the gruesome details?’
Was this really his main complaint, Jamie thought, that their History department lacked coherence? He was quickly losing interest in the discussion, but could see the man was still fired up.
Jamie put up a wall between them. ‘We always appreciate customer feedback, sir. Do you have any suggestions of books we could order in to broaden the range of the section?’
He thought the man would be irritated, but he eagerly made Jamie an extensive list. Then he struggled back into his coat, his swollen fingers fumbling with the buttons, and went out into the rain. Jamie stuck the list up behind his desk with his other reminders. He knew he would never order any of the books. There wasn’t enough room on the shelves. And besides, people wanted the horror.
The rain was still driving down in his lunch hour and he couldn’t face going out for a sandwich. He got some crisps and a Mars bar from the vending machine and sat in the staff room reading an Alistair MacLean novel. He always kept an eye out for Alistair MacLeans, and he had a large collection now.
He’d chosen his usual chair in the far corner of the room, a position that usually didn’t invite interruption. But just as he was biting into his Mars bar, a shadow loomed over him.
‘What are we on now?’
Jamie groaned inwardly. Brian from General Fiction thought he’d found a kindred spirit in Jamie, whose passion for old thrillers he had noted early on. Brian himself was a Science Fiction and Fantasy man, but he’d observed the zeal of the aficionado in Jamie and seemed to think he’d soon enough be able to divert his energies towards a more deserving genre.
‘South by Java Head,’ Jamie said, without looking up from the page. He was aiming for damage control. Occasionally you could head Brian off by refusing to engage with him, like playing dead when faced with a grizzly bear.
‘Don’t know yet. Chapter One.’
Brian sat down beside him, as ever a little too close. Resigned, Jamie closed his book.
‘I think you should reconsider Ursula Le Guin,’ Brian said.
‘I’m just not sure she’s for me, Brian.’
‘A majestic writer,’ Brian said. ‘If you’re ready for something a class or two above MacLean, that is.’
‘I don’t think I can handle anything much above MacLean.’
‘What, too exhausted from slogging it out in History?’ Brian chuckled. ‘All those crowds of customers using up your brain power? They never make it up to the second floor, Jamie. You should try working in General.’
‘The truth is, Brian,’ Jamie tried as a last resort, ‘I can’t read very well.’
He shoved his book into his pocket and exited the staff room whilst Brian was still stammering an apology. Being robbed of those precious minutes of his lunch break made him feel childishly furious. He sneaked past the History Enquiries desk and seated himself in the little alcove between Jewish History and Military History to carry on reading, hoping Brian wouldn’t track him down.
He became so engrossed in Chapter Two of South by Java Head that at first he didn’t notice the young man and woman standing near him. Then the woman made some kind of movement – perhaps pushing her hair back from her face, or shaking the raindrops from her coat, he couldn’t afterwards say what – and something familiar about the motion drew his attention. Jamie didn’t look up from the page, but now he was acutely aware of the couple standing close by.
After a moment, the woman spoke, murmured something to the man which made him laugh under his breath, and immediately Jamie was frozen, unable to make out the words but recognizing something in the tone, something in the rhythm of that voice which erased the intervening years.
He saw her turn out of the corner of his eye, and could see her stop and stare. She was looking right at him as he sat in his armchair, with South by Java Head open in his lap.
When she started walking over, he stood up.
Her hair was cut into a short, neat bob and was its natural dark brown rather than the bright red it had been back then. But her face still had that fragile, questioning quality; almost childlike, especially now with its tentative expression. She was still beautiful. Of course she was still beautiful.
‘It is you, isn’t it?’ she was saying. ‘I thought it was.’ She seemed nervous. Jamie wondered if he was too, but couldn’t tell.
‘I can’t believe it.’
Now he saw again her slow, wide smile. Jamie used to love the confiding quality in that smile, which made him and Alice co-conspirators whenever she caught his eye. Eventually he had realized she smiled like that at everyone.
‘This is so strange,’ Alice was saying. ‘We’ve just been up to visit Mark’s parents in Leeds and stopped here on the way back. And then it was raining, so you see—’ She gestured as if to say, here we are.
There was a pause. Alice only seemed to be talking to fill the dead space between them. Jamie had realized after the initial shock that they didn’t have much to say to one another, and he supposed that Alice knew it too.
She gestured to the man with her, and he came forward. Jamie looked him over. He seemed OK. Kind-ish. Not very good-looking.
‘Jamie, this is my husband, Mark. Mark, this is my old friend Jamie.’
Her husband. Jamie took in the news quietly, then shook the man’s hand. ‘Nice to meet you.’ He could tell from Mark’s appraising look that he knew what Alice meant by ‘old friend’. He wondered how much Mark knew. Probably a fair bit, from the careful way he seemed to be looking at him.
‘We’ve been married four months,’ Alice said, as though Jamie had asked.
‘Congratulations,’ Jamie said. ‘That’s brilliant.’ He thought perhaps he was supposed to hug Alice at this point so he reached for her, but she stiffened and he let his arm drop. To cover the moment of awkwardness, he said, ‘Alice, it’s been forever.’ This, he thought, would pass muster. It was the kind of thing someone else might say in a situation like this.
Alice corrected him. ‘Five years. It’s been five years.’
‘How are you?’
‘I didn’t know where you were, Jamie,’ she said, ignoring his question. ‘Where have you been all this time?’
Jamie tried to meet her gaze. ‘Here and there. You know. I’ve been working here a few years.’
‘In a bookshop?’
‘I’m in charge of the Jewish History section,’ he found himself saying defensively.
‘That sounds interesting,’ Mark intervened. ‘Do you know, I might excuse myself for a moment and go and have a look.’
Jamie pointed it out to him, silently hoping he was interested in the Holocaust. He noticed the protective way Mark touched Alice’s shoulder before he walked away, and the look that passed between them. He thought, she’ll be alright with him.
When they were alone, Alice said, ‘It’s so weird, seeing you again like this.’
‘I waited for you to get in touch. I waited for ages.’
Jamie knew he should say something, but couldn’t think what.
‘Anyway,’ Alice said into the silence. ‘You can’t do anything about it now.’
He thought this was probably true. There was another pause, more uncomfortable this time. Jamie decided to say after a moment, ‘I really am sorry, Alice. There’s no excuse.’ He noticed the formality in his own voice, and thought how odd it was that he was talking to her like a stranger.
‘But how are you, Jamie?’ Alice said. ‘Really?’
‘And your family?’
‘I don’t know.’
He said nothing.
Alice said, ‘You know it doesn’t make it go away, just pretending people don’t exist.’
She would never forgive him, he thought. He didn’t blame her, and it didn’t matter; but he felt sorry for her.
Mark was coming back over. He said, ‘You’ve got a good selection of books on Auschwitz.’
Mark turned to Alice. ‘Darling, we should be getting off.’
Alice was rummaging around in her handbag, and eventually pulled out a business card. ‘Keep in touch, Jamie,’ she said as she handed it to him.
‘You’re an interior designer,’ Jamie said, inspecting it.
‘Not a very successful one,’ Alice said.
‘I thought you wanted to be an artist.’
She’d been looking at him narrowly, but suddenly she smiled. ‘People are allowed to change their plans.’ Jamie felt her old charm working on him again.
‘I mean it about keeping in touch,’ she added. ‘Don’t disappear again.’
‘It was nice seeing you, Alice,’ he said. ‘Good to meet you, Mark.’
‘Take care of yourself.’ Alice started to walk away, but at the last minute she seemed to change her mind. She murmured something to Mark, and left him waiting a little way away. Then she came quickly back towards Jamie and slipped her arms around him, putting her head against his chest. For a moment, the familiar gesture left him stricken. Alice had always had a special way of tangling herself in his arms. The next moment, she’d turned away and gone back to Mark without a word. Mark took her hand, gave Jamie a quick nod, and they disappeared down the stairs.
Jamie went and stuck Alice’s business card behind his desk next to the old man’s list of Jewish history books. He took a quick glance at the titles. Resource and Ritual in the Ancient Near East, he read. The Wisdom of Solomon: Israeli Science and Discovery, 400–500 BC. No use stocking this kind of thing, he thought. Nobody will ever buy it.