A Moment of Falling
(Andrea Goldsmith)

Posted on December 10, 2010 by in Novel Excerpts

Jack has been hopelessly in love with Ava since they met at university at the age of 18. He is now in his mid-forties. Until the meeting in the excerpt below, he had not seen Ava for fifteen years – although he had thought and dreamed of her on a daily basis. As well, with Jack in the Asia-Pacific region and Ava in Oxford, the two of them have maintained contact through weekly letters.

The meeting occurs at Ava’s home in Melbourne. Ava and her husband Harry have returned home after 25 years in Oxford. Also at the gathering are two other old friends from university: celebrity philosopher, Conrad Lyall, and molecular biologist Helen Rankin, who, together with Ava, co-hosted the fondue lunch way back in 1980s Oxford to which Harry turned up uninvited – and never really left.

***

There comes a time in a life of intense and enduring emotion that it secretes a sort of chloroform. To break the pattern is to wake up under the anaesthetic and it is terrifying. Jack’s love was under threat as he sat in Harry and Ava’s home watching their perfect duet. She passed food, he poured wine; she went for another bottle, he uncorked it; he called her ‘Davey’, she called him ‘Oak’. And all those fond nudges and casual caresses as they went about their hostly duties. And a shorthand communication of gestures and eye movements, and words used so sparingly they might be grains of caviar.

What about me? Jack was thinking. What about me? as he watched the two of them so easy together.

Sex was partly to blame. Never had he been able to imagine Ava and Harry in bed together – not simply because he didn’t want to put Harry where he himself had so briefly been, rather he could not imagine the pale and flaccid Harry Guerin pumping his seed into anyone. Yet within weeks of the fondue brunch, Helen had reported that Harry was an overnight fixture at the flat.

Jack had been incredulous. ‘Surely not for sex.’

‘The walls are thin, Jack, paper thin. And believe me, they’re not discussing Shakespeare.’

Jack refused to accept that aspect of their relationship lasted very long, and when in her letters Ava clearly referred to her bedroom as clearly a separate space from Harry’s, Jack found the proof he needed to relegate Harry to a marital twilight zone, a sexual no-man’s land. But when he eliminated sex from the marriage, he tossed out all other intimacy as well.

There was no avoiding it now.

He tried to screen Harry out, to focus only on Ava, but she was strange to him. He did not doubt the truth of his Ava, the Ava of his thoughts and imaginings, nor did he doubt the reality of the woman who sat so close he could reach out and touch her. It was more that the two realities were fundamentally different, like the United States is different from Nigeria. As he tried to scramble out of his confusion, he found himself wondering how it might be to live without this love. He felt the possibility like a man losing his footing high above an abyss, a moment of doubt, a moment of falling, a mere flicker and then it was gone.  (Reunion, p. 20-21)

***

Conrad Lyall is a celebrity philosopher, who has lived in the U.S. for the past twenty years. He is an attractive man, a serial-marrier who has also had numerous affairs. He comes across as very assured, a successful man who is at ease with himself. In the excerpt below, the reader learns of a different side to Conrad – Connie – as he tries to steady himself before a lecture to his home-town crowd.

Conrad Lyall was churning in the wings of the auditorium. He was accustomed to nerves before a lecture, the extra adrenalin charged up his performance and he had learned to capitalise on it, but tonight he was more jittery than usual. Melbourne might be located well off the world stage but home always demands more of you. There was family out there, his mother in particular, his ever-supportive mother who from the moment of his birth had set out to make something of her son. Even now, an old woman in her eighties, she would remind him he had been named after the great Joseph Conrad – more a reflection of her own youthful desires to be a novelist, Connie had long believed, than anything she might have observed in her infant son. His sweet, hungry mother who had channelled all her passions into her only child, so that in the patchy night hours when work and mothering were finished, it was a sour whine which dribbled from her pen. She had always been burdened with more aspiration than talent when it concerned her own ambitions, but in the case of her son she had long been convinced he had lived up to his name.

His mother was in the audience, together with old friends and acquaintances. Over drinks he had mingled with former colleagues – they’d certainly be watching his performance tonight – as well as two former students who had done rather well for themselves. There were snipers out there too, Connie knew exactly who they were, academics who had been quick to target him as all charm and artifice twenty years ago and had used the time since to practise their punches. Connie had long been aware that reputation was considerably less sturdy than he would like, but with his career now well-established surely it would take more than a lecture to a home crowd and a few bitter philosophers to topple the cumulative effects of twenty years’ work.

And Sara was out there too. He peered around the wings. Sara, ‘it rhymes with tiara’, was in the fifth row on the aisle and already on friendly terms with her neighbour. All glossy brown skin in her skimpy black dress, he definitely wanted to impress her.

It was a part of Australian folklore that expatriates only returned home when they were on the wane in the wider more important world. But his star had never been brighter. He had been attracting huge crowds both here and in the States; even the Europeans now acknowledged him. Such suspicion attached to popularity, yet in his own case there was no reason for popularity to condemn him as lightweight. If there was a problem, and he was unsure whether there was, it lay with the well-known collegiate capacity for envy. For the fact remained that while he might be tired and unduly anxious, and yes, he was very popular, irrespective of what some of his dryer colleagues might think, popularity did not rule out a serious and significant contribution. Dickens had been popular, Russell too, and Einstein had been a celebrity. Not to mention the de Bottons and Shamas of his own age – although he harboured the same doubts about them as he did about himself. (Reunion, p. 66-67)

Black Lazarus
(Maxine Beneba Clarke)

Posted on August 1, 2010 by in Novel Excerpts

It was close to six by the time Sonny finished up at the Basement. The twenty wedged deep down in his pocket, he made his way to his leafleting post at Piccadilly station.

Sonny fished inside the deep pockets of his long, black overcoat, brought out a wad of postcard-sized pamphlets, overturned a wooden fruit crate he’d pilfered from outside a green grocer on the way from the basement and stood on it.

“We want freedom. We want the power to determine the destiny of our black community. We want full employment for our people!”

It was a Sunday morning, and the streets were still mostly empty. On a business day, even at this god-forsaken hour, the early morning business crowd would be starting to drizzle into the city: early risers in their fine cut suits and stiff shirt collars. But today the Sunday morning stragglers making their way home from all-night bars variously stared at Sonny, walked quickly past with their eyes cast down, or shuffled over and grabbed a leaflet with such dexterity he hadn’t a chance to ask for their details. Most of the brothers did the latter.

“We want an end to the robbery by the capitalists of our black community. We want housing fit for the shelter of human beings!” How long had Sonny been yelling out these words? He didn’t even need to think them anymore, they scrolled monotonously from his lips like television credits.

“We want…” That was what the struggle wanted, but what did he want? What did Eddison Methias Finnigan Gray want? Damn Olivia. Damn her. Tears streamed down the man’s face. Several stragglers glanced over at him, quickly walking toward the station entrance. Sonny thought about what he must look like, standing up there on that crate, stammering. Tear droplets were falling on the BPP pamplets, blurring the ink and crinkling the paper-thin pages.

“We want…land…bread, housing…” That wasn’t right. That was the final demand. He’d missed one. Sonny’s chin dropped down to his chest. He climbed down off the crate and angrily kicked it aside. Cramming the pamphlets back into his coat pocket, he buttoned up against the cold morning and walked quickly toward the station entrance.

Sonny saw them at the same moment they noticed him, their thick black truncheons swaying at their sides as they picked up step.

The man had been picketing or pamphleting or something, it was obvious: that long, black jacket, the crate upturned behind him. He looked strung out, red puffy eyes. One of the Officers thought he’d seen the this layabout down the rebel squat in Brixton. He might even be one of the Railton lot. “Step aside please, Sir.” They came toward Eddison head on, blocking the station entrance.

Sonny made to walk past them and the shorter officer put a hand on his upper arm.

“Don’t fucking touch me.”

“Sir, we don’t want any trouble. If you’d just step over here thanks.”

“Don’t want any trouble.” What a fucking joke.

“We want an immediate end to police brutality.” Sonny suddenly remembered the demand he’d missed out earlier.

“What’d he say?” The tall officer turned to his colleague.

“I said we want an immediate end to police brutality and the murder of black people, other people of colour and all oppressed people in London.” A small crowd had gathered, so Sonny knew he was relatively safe.

“Empty your pockets please.”

“Why?”

“Empty your pockets.”

Sonny sighed. He was tired, didn’t want another night in another police cell. Last time he hadn’t been able to get hold of the Panther’s brief. They’d put him in a packed cell for an all nighter – five of them in there and only three sleeping spaces. The others had been vagrants – grimy skinned and smelling like god knows what, still drunk enough to toilet down their trouser legs. He’d curled up on a corner of the cold cement floor and woken with a cough so severe it had taken him a quarter of the year to get rid of it.

Sonny pulled the fliers out of his pockets and handed them over. He took his coat off and dumped it on the floor. The smaller cop picked the coat up, ruffled inside the coat pocket. He flashed Sonny’s licence card at his partner, disappointed.

“Got an address here.” Maybe they were wrong and the man wasn’t one of those squat blacks. He was fairly well spoken, despite his agro. Come to think of it, that coat had to be expensive as well. A crowd started to gather.

The cops looked at each other. The small one shoved the leaflets into his pocket and returned the twenty and the licence to the Sonny. “Thankyou Sir, you can be on your way.”

Sonny spat at their heels as they retreated…

…A group of young brown men appeared in the entrance of an alleyway near the Curtisfield turn-off, carrying baseball bats and identical wild eyes that glared out bloodshot against the sooty morning sky. Sonny smiled back at them. He stopped at the red light on Wincheslea and stared at the balconies of the four storey concrete Housing Estate. The string washing lines strained in the breeze. These days the distinction between the cracked, grey-beige exterior of the Estate buildings and the surrounding terrace houses was becoming increasingly difficult to note.

Even at the late business hour it was, the grocers along West Green road were doing a roaring trade in all things down home: jerk seasoning, tinned ackee, smoked salt fish and bruised plantain. Educated Black was hanging by a thread, the sign declaring the shop was now only opening on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The African Children’s books in the window had faded covers. Sonny remembered them being put on display almost five years back: Jalawah and the Beanstalk, and Liza Lou and the Yeller Belly Swamp.

The salon spilled to the side-walk with racks of multi-coloured hair-weave, giant tubs of sticky lock wax, Even Tone skin bleach and netted sleeping caps.  Nearly-girl women flicked through Ebony under hairdryers getting ready for their Friday night, as heeled even-younger things in goose-bumps, white singlets, spray-on peddle-pushers and bling layers attended.

“Jesus fucking Christ.” Sonny turned the corner onto Curtisfield and navigated a pile of rubbish flowing onto the narrow street. The bin workers of Haringey Council must have been on strike yet again. The plastic bins were full to rotting, double bin-bags no match for the razor-sharp gnaw of local rats, who seemed to have carried word of the strike as far as Hyde Park on the sewer line.

Sonny jumped as a clanging around the back left wheel of a passing car signaled it’s attachment to a garbage bag of rum and soft drink cans. A group of almost adult-sized black kids loitering on the nearby street corner, ginger-rum cans in hand, turned sharply at the raucous, ears pricked to run. Eddison stared at the teenagers. These days, the Tottenham youth walked to fit in. By nine, every brown boy would know the subtle swagger, hip-sway and blade-two buzz-cut that says they belonged here. But they needed more than this little corner of London. They needed more.