My historical novel Summerland is currently only $1.24 on Amazon.com and only 77p in the UK, and of course completely free to borrow for Amazon Prime members, so there is really no reason not to take advantage of this offer.
If you’re not interested in the 1920s, the history of Spiritualism, scepticism, Harry Houdini, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, World War I or gardening with malice aforethought, then you might want to buy it for the experimental threeway sex. Which doesn’t happen in the excerpt below. Sorry about that.
This excerpt frames one of the central conflicts of the book, in which Ben meets Audrey and realises that his mother’s death has forced him to reevaluate his whole position on the afterlife.
The piano arrived the next day and hot on its heels came Mrs. Lilley, her interest roused by the sight of the van. Whenever there were signs of acquisition, drama or catastrophe, Mrs. Lilley always followed, calling on some apparently unrelated pretext; her bicycle had thrown its chain again or she’d had such a glut of tomatoes that she’d had to make chutney, and would he care for a jar or two?
But even she wouldn’t attempt the chutney gambit in April, so she arrived empty handed at the back door, hoping aloud that she wasn’t being a bother even as she stepped into the kitchen where she’d stay for at least half an hour.
“How are you holding up, Mr. Brown?” she asked, surreptitiously winding her neck about, looking for items of interest.
Like many older people she carried the dying breath of the Nineteenth Century with her, her waist and bosom moulded to the cruel fashions of a bygone era, her neck so erect that she must have learned to hold it so with books piled on her head. Her given name was Elaine, but she was more Juno than lily maid, a tall statuesque woman with a Roman nose and a mass of thick auburn hair.
“Not too badly,” said Ben. “I was just about to put the kettle on.”
“Oh, I shan’t stay,” she said. “Don’t go to trouble on my account. I just wanted to know if you were still coming tonight?”
Ben screwed his courage to the sticking place and slowly said, “I’m not sure.” Jack’s last words had hit home and while nobody had attempted such a thing yet out of tact, Ben knew that eventually Mrs. Lilley and Mrs. Wilson would ask him if he wanted to speak to his mother.
Mrs. Lilley’s expression was all sympathy. “It’s always hard to sit so soon after a death, Mr. Brown. I know how you feel. I was the same when my poor dear husband passed – do you remember?”
“Of course.” She’d been in bed for a month, weeping inconsolably, even though Mr. Lilley had been an invalid for so long that she had to have seen it coming, and death was just a veil we must all pass through, and so on ad infinitum…
Ben hated himself for thinking these things and he’d once confided to his mother that he thought Mrs. Lilley a bit much. It was one of the only times in his life his mother had ever slapped him – stood on her tiptoes and smacked him round the face. “You can’t imagine what it’s like,” she’d said. “She’s a woman. She lost her child and now her husband – she’s lost everything she’s ever been allowed to have. So don’t you dare.”
“Mrs. Wilson has a theory,” said Mrs. Lilley, “That when grief is fresh the vibrations are that much stronger – the sitter is so much more potent, you see?”
Ben nodded, although he was sure the theory was Mrs. Lilley’s. Mrs. Wilson never struck him as a person given to theories – she was blonde and fat from numerous children, as earthy as Mrs. Lilley was spiritual. Fleshy women like Mrs. Wilson often worked well as mediums, as if their stolid, mundane maternity suited them for the task of spiritual midwifery, groaning and giving birth to phantoms in the dark.
“I couldn’t sit for so long after Albert passed, and you can’t imagine how I regret that, Mr. Brown. It was as if I failed to take advantage of the link between him and myself, as if I left it too long and the connection somehow…failed.”
“Yes, yes, I see.”
“Besides, there’s been great excitement in your absence – I have a new boarder. An American.”
“A medium?” asked Ben, interested.
“No, no. But she is a sensitive, with a view to developing her talents. She’s from Attica, a town in Ohio – although I’m not sure where that is. Still, it must be a reasonably respectable place. She’s not at all what I expected. When the Society contacted me about boarding an American I was worried they’d send me…well…a flapper, quite frankly.” Mrs. Lilley laughed. “But she’s very proper, even if she does cut her hair. Rather a bluestocking, actually. Glasses, poor thing.”
“I’ll think about it,” said Ben. “I promise.”
“Please do,” she said, and he watched her turn kittenish as she searched for the gossip she’d come for. “I couldn’t help noticing…the van? Not taking away your dear mother’s things? Surely, Mr. Brown – it’s just too soon.”
It was on the tip of his tongue to tell her it was none of her business, but he said “No. It’s a piano. A new one.”
“How lovely,” she said, her hand resting lightly on his arm, her blue eyes sparkling. “So good for you to have something to occupy your mind. I’m sure your Mamma would be proud to know you were keeping up your music. We must all turn our talents to our advantage, don’t you think?”
“Certainly,” said Ben, who loathed playing the piano and would happily have squandered his talent. But he knew she wasn’t talking about that. She wanted him to sit and she wasn’t going to take no for an answer.
“You must get up a little concert sometime,” she said. “We’re so starved for entertainment in this parts.” She gave his arm a small squeeze. “We’ll expect you this evening. Do take care, dear.”
And off she went, her target primed. She meant well, she always did, but he couldn’t help feeling resentful about her trying to tempt him with Americans and heightened sensitivity when he wasn’t even sure if he wanted to sit. His feelings about his mother were altogether clear; he wanted nothing to do with an attempt to reach her.
“Never mind, I’m sure she’ll be in touch,” Jack had said, as if it were that simple. Someone dropped out of this world and you all joined hands and resumed the conversation in the next. That was the general idea, Ben supposed, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that it was somehow wrong.
Worse, he didn’t want to speak to his mother. He’d done nothing but speak to her for the past six months as she died by inches, reassuring her, promising her he didn’t think any less of her when she vomited green slime or lost control of her bowels, reading to her as she snored into a morphine doze.
He wasn’t sure he wanted her spirit to live on. What if she remembered the manner of her passing, the constant pain and loss of dignity? She wouldn’t want to remember that, he felt sure of it. Towards the end she had said over and over again ‘I want to die,’ and he’d wanted her to die too, to his everlasting shame. What would it take? A drop too much morphine? A pillow? (God no, he couldn’t do that.) Mrs. Lilley was always talking about death being but a door, but what kind of door devoured a woman alive like that?
Rest in peace – that was what they put on the coffin plate, and let her, oh please let her rest in peace. Leave her sleeping forever and oblivious of her protracted, painful death. To wake her up and remind her of her suffering seemed the ultimate cruelty.
It went against what he wanted too; he was tired of being the adult-child, the boy lugged from one séance to another. He remembered the moment she’d died, her heavy breaths subsiding, her hand cold and leaden in his. Then she made a little clucking sound in the back of her throat, her mouth fell slightly open and there it was – she was gone. And he had wanted to laugh, to stretch his facial muscles in shapes they hadn’t formed in so long. He had wanted to laugh and shout and smash the room up around him, bowl the pill bottles and medicines into the mirror, break the bedpans and chamber pots, set fire to the room with her corpse still in it because it was done, it was over.
He had never felt so relieved, or so ashamed of himself.
But he’d felt it all the same and sometimes he wondered if it was healthy to dwell so long on the shadow, a grave disservice to life. And here was life. He was twenty four. He might live to be a hundred. What was he going to do with the next seventy six years? Rap on tables in search of his mother?
No thanks and no chance. He resolved to refuse Mrs. Lilley and went upstairs to undrape the mirrors. “I’m sorry,” he told his mother’s photograph. “But it’s not like we’re orthodox. And the room wants light.”
The spring sun was pale yet, but its buttery colour promised warmth. Light and air – that’s what the house needed – fresh air and sunshine to purge the sickroom smell and spook-haunted corners. He lifted the window with a ponderous creak of old sash cords.
There was a woman on Mrs. Lilley’s back lawn, hanging out the washing. She had obviously heard the noise of the window opening and she was looking directly up at him. He froze, unsure what to do. Should he duck behind the curtains and pretend he’d never been there at all? But that was stupid, she’d seen him. She was looking directly at him. So what now? Smile? Wave? He’d never seen her before in his life.
She waved. “Hi!” she called.
The American. So much for her ‘respectability’. Mrs. Lilley would have a heart attack if she knew her new boarder was in the habit of calling out to strange men.
“Hello,” said Ben, his throat dry.
“You must be Mr. Brown?” called the girl. She was small, standing on a low wooden stool to reach the clothesline. “Are you coming to the séance tonight?”
“I’ll certainly consider it, yes. Thank you. Nice to meet you, Miss…”
She laughed at his awkwardness. He couldn’t blame her for that. “Laurel,” she said. “Miss Laurel. I look forward to it.”
“Yes. Yes. Definitely,” said Ben, withdrawing through the window. Oh God, she wasn’t supposed to speak to him, was she? So embarrassing – surely the proper thing should have been not to acknowledge eye contact at all while she pretended fascination with clothes-pegs and him likewise with the curtain poles. But she was American. They did things differently. More informally.
He concealed himself behind the curtain and watched her for a moment. Bluestocking, Mrs. Lilley had said, but perhaps that was nothing more than a typical piece of feminine disparagement. The girl was pretty. She wasn’t wearing the infamous glasses but her clothes were dowdy – a stretched out jumper and a pleated skirt. And yet despite the unflattering garments she was pretty – graceful as she stretched up to peg out pillowcases, her legs slender, her back straight. Her hair was black and shiny, cropped to her ears.
Girls. He’d forgotten they existed. Ada didn’t really count; she was too invested in the other world to present much fascination in this one.
His mind was made up, whether he liked it or not. The promise of change was irresistible, so at seven he locked up the backdoor and made his way down the garden passageway to Mrs. Lilley’s house.
No occultist worth their salt would have given this ‘circle’ a second glance. Mrs. Wilson, the medium, occupied the best easy chair, her knitting surging forth from her needles like woolly ectoplasm. Beside Mrs. Wilson knelt Ada Singleton, hands uplifted like an acolyte, wool taut between her fingers; Mrs. Wilson was reaching the end of the ball.
Then there was Stuart Hamilton, the red-haired postal clerk. He had three brothers, all of whom were doctors up in Edinburgh. Stuart had been sent south for the sake of his asthma, or at least that was his father’s story.
“There you are,” said Stuart, holding out a pamphlet. “Look here – thought you might enjoy this.”
It was a spiritualist hymn book, a collection of sickly poetry full of purple images of smiling angels and lisping dead children who were so happy to see their Mammas again.
“Lovely print,” said Stuart Hamilton. “Look at the quality of the paper.”
Ben made vague noises of assent. The flyleaf alone was enough to make him queasy – a lilac deco-design of white lilies and gilding bordering the words ONLY LOOK! IT CAN SEE AS WELL AS HEAR!
God, why was it all so tasteless? They were supposed to be gazing into the great beyond, not sitting around singing bad poetry to the tune of borrowed Christian hymns, huddled in a ‘drawing room’ that as often as not smelled of a thousand meals.
The worst thing was knowing where his own disdain came from, a stark reminder that he was different, that his nerve strings twanged to a different note, no matter how carefully they’d been tuned to the melody of the English middle class. The hymnal was a sour reminder that all this table tipping and tapping was really a gentile preoccupation, one of those things he had never understood and didn’t particularly care if he didn’t, like the rules of cricket or whether you were supposed to wear a hat in church.
Deep down Ben knew that if there was a God, there was a heaven, no good Jew would ever have presumed to be on table-tipping terms with Eternity. Not that he was a good Jew – he couldn’t even get past the second commandment – but better a bad Jew than a good spiritualist. Theirs was a cosy version of heaven. They even gave it a pretty name – Summerland – the kind of name you might give to a holiday cottage if you were of a fanciful frame of mind.
For all it was no use to Ben, the faith of his fathers at least had the deep, rich resonance that comes only from centuries. It would have no use for tinny notes like the one struck by this grotty little hymn book.
“Well, I can’t say I care for the poetry,” said a voice at Ben’s elbow.
And there she was – Miss Laurel, peering into the pages with her nose turned up. “Apologies if it’s the work of anyone present,” she said, covering her embarrassment with an ingratiating grin. Her accent was softer than it had sounded when she was calling up from the lawn, softer and deeper but rough on the r’s.
Stuart laughed. “No, no work of mine. It doesn’t have to be Longfellow – it’s really just there to raise the vibrations.”
“Longfellow?” she said, with a moue that suggested she wasn’t an admirer. Her eyes and mouth were extraordinarily expressive. “I guess there’s no accounting for taste. Why not…I don’t know…Whitman?”
“Maybe spirits need a meter,” said Ben, half-serious. “And rhyme.”
“Maybe they do,” she said. “You’re Mr. Brown, right? Pleased to meet you.” She stuck out her hand with a masculine forthrightness that made Stuart blush, perhaps because she’d reminded him of his failure to do his social duty and introduce them properly.
“Likewise,” said Ben. Her hand was small and dry, spinsterish in a way that the rest of her was not. Her eyes were too bright and too black and her lips too fashionably curved. The corners of her mouth were hadn’t begun to droop in the way of women disappointed by life; she seemed so far undefeated, and as if she liked to laugh.
Stuart Hamilton feigned interest in the doggerel on the page before him. Miss Laurel tucked her hair behind her ear.
“So you’re American…” Ben began, just as she said “I’m sorry to hear about your…” They both laughed awkwardly.
“I was sorry to hear,” she said, after another silence so socially strained that Stuart took the opportunity to move away. “Is this your first sitting after…you know?”
He nodded, feeling an almost physical rush of gratitude. “To be honest,” he said, lowering his voice. “I’m not sure I want to. It hasn’t been a month.”
She looked appalled. “So why on earth are you here?”
“Mrs. Lilley thinks it will cheer me up.”
The girl’s expression was something else – an odd mix of pity and horror. “Really?” she said, in a near whisper. “And what do you think?”
Ben swallowed. He could feel tears burning his sinuses already and that old fear building, the fear that he would lose control and start screaming for no reason at all. “I think it will make things worse,” he said, with some effort.
“Can’t you have a headache or something?” asked Miss Laurel. “Say you left something on the stove.”
“I can’t,” he said, although he wanted to. The thought of being home was like a warm compress on a swelling.
“Yes. Yes you can,” she said. “Say your dog is on fire and your cat exploded. Lie like a rug – I guess you’re allowed in these circumstances.”
He smiled, even though his stomach was turning flip-flops and he feared he’d be sick. It hadn’t been this bad for years. “I can’t just suddenly develop a headache,” he said. “That doesn’t happen.”
“It does, actually,” said Miss Laurel. “I used to know this girl from Cincinnati who had these lightning headaches. One minute she’d be fine and the next – bang. She’d go pale green and beg you to close all the drapes. Go. I’ll cover for you.”
He glanced towards the door. Three steps. Open it and walk out into the garden. People would look at him, maybe follow him, but once again he felt the burning desire to be alone.
“Thank you,” he said. “You’re very kind.”
“I’m really not,” she said, edging them both towards the door. “Now scram.”
He slipped outside. The chill of the night almost immediately dissolved his brain fog and he could have laughed, thinking about Miss Laurel telling all and sundry about her friend from Cincinnati while Mrs. Lilley was forced to listen.
His heart was still hammering when he opened the back door. His fingers tingled and despite the relief of being home he had that strange, queasy, stuttering feeling in the pit of his stomach. He hadn’t felt like this in so long. All the time he’d been working with Mrs. Wilson to bring through Cecilia, he’d felt fine. The spirits could heal – they said so, and they had, hadn’t they? They’d cured him of his wretched nervousness, his thin, silly, skittish temperament.
Ben stuffed his knuckles into his mouth and bit them, the pain going some way to making him feel the way he needed to feel. Perhaps he should go back.
And say what? Say he’d bolted because his nerves were playing him up again? Put up with their solicitude? And even if he did, then what? Join hands in the dark and try to speak with Mother?
“Fuck that,” he said aloud, just to feel the obscenity on his lips. There were teeth-marks in his fingers and he felt ashamed. What now? Drink? Play his new piano (It badly needed tuning.) with a mind to putting on ‘a little concert’ for his neighbours?
He unstoppered the wine in the pantry and poured himself a glass. Then he opened the cupboard under the stairs and took out his cello – poor neglected thing. The case had a film of dust thick enough to write one’s name in, but once it was out of the case it was like he’d never put it away; the hollow heft of it between his knees, the dip in the parquet where the endpin had rested.
Or so he thought. His fingers protested; his left hand ached after a couple of scales. Nursing had made the tips of his fingers too tender for the strings and he winced when he launched into Bach, so sore and raw. But it was a good pain. Better than the other.