Friday 15 November 2013

An excerpt from Elizabeth Knox's new novel, WAKE

Last week we launched Wake, the new novel by Elizabeth Knox. The following is an excerpt from Wake featuring one of the novel's main characters–William, an American lawyer with a complex past.

Elizabeth Knox (photo credit: Grant Maiden)

William had been eight and his sister thirteen when they were taken from their mother. After a short time apart in different foster homes, they fetched up with their father’s family. The arrangement was better for them—though, after phoning once or twice, their father never did show.
They had one happy summer playing in the woods, or the scrubby mess of broken-down cars and tossed refrigerators just off the dirt road to their uncle’s house. William’s biggest cousin taught him how to shoot—then went into the army. William broke down and clung to him at the bus stop, while the adults and other kids laughed in that casual, mocking, meaning-no-harm way they had. Fall came and William toughened up to the mockery, and to the periodic alarms of all-night drinking sessions.
When the aunties and uncles got their cheques they went on binges. They didn’t hurt or even yell at any of the kids—but William and his sister were alarmed by the raucous jokes and the heady stories that seemed a game of gruesome one-upmanship. They were frightened by the arm-wrestling and smashed furniture and all the reddened faces.
William was sleeping in a packed bunkroom with his boy cousins—three older—two several years younger. Sis was in with the single girl cousin, sleeping in a long room between the roof and ceiling. The cousins could sleep through the noise, because they were used to it—but William was scared, so, Friday nights, Sis would pick him up and take him out, bundled in his bedding, to sleep in one of the wrecked cars. When winter came he took to going to bed in his clothes so he’d be warm enough to sleep once he had to move.
Then, midwinter, there came a bitterly cold night—the first clear following a solid week of snow which stayed on the ground despite their proximity to the sea. After an evening when the drunken shouting melted into dreams that also shouted at William—that he must wake up!—he woke with his head tucked under the stinky plastic steering wheel of the old Chrysler truck, as usual, though he couldn’t remember his sister carrying him out of the house. He was shivering and his feet were freezing, even in his boots and socks. He got out of the truck and gathered his blankets around him so that they wouldn’t drag through the puddles. He hurried to the house.
The air indoors was thinly misted, and it made him dizzy. The house was silent. One uncle was on his back on the rug. Another was in a recliner, his head at an uncomfortable angle. All the doors were closed but the air was almost as cold as it had been outdoors.
William knew not to disturb the adults—they’d still be drunk—but he went to his bed to warm up, and, as soon as he entered the bedroom, he knew something was very wrong. His cousins’ faces were flushed and pink, but they seemed not to be breathing. No one in the house was breathing. William didn’t know what to do—but he did what he first thought he should. He dragged the two smaller kids outside. Then he went back and opened all the windows before climbing into the attic. His sister and his girl cousin were breathing. Maybe. He wasn’t entirely sure. He scrambled back downstairs and searched his uncles’ pockets for car keys, then drove to a neighbour to ask them to call an ambulance. He couldn’t reach the brake pedal properly and had to bring the car to a stop by running it into some scrub.
What had happened was that his inebriated uncles had been feeling the cold, and had carried the gas barbecue indoors. Within a couple of hours the adults had succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning.
One of the little cousins lived—the other might have, except it was too cold where William had left him, wearing only his pyjamas on the open porch. No one told William that though—he worked it out later.
William’s sister lived—but she never woke up. The last time he visited her in her miserable long-term care facility, he found her curled up in bed. She hadn’t had enough physical therapy and her tendons had shortened, drawing her limbs up so that her fists were bunched under her chin and her knees were tucked up by her stomach, so that she lay like someone sleeping in a cold room. A year after that she was dead.
William was a big healthy guy. Their mother hadn’t stinted on food—only she’d never taught him and Sis to clean their teeth, so almost every tooth in William’s head was a crown. She sent them to school, but had papered over every window in the house. She’d said, ‘Don’t believe what anyone else says’—but also believed that sinister out-runners of everyone else were creeping around outside all day and night, so that a person couldn’t even hang out washing unobserved, and washing could only be done when it was absolutely necessary and then dried indoors in a room so perpetually damp that its white ceiling tiles were not just spotted but piebald with mould.
There was that life, with his mother—a life of intricately rationalised disorder—and there was the periodic feckless havoc of his uncle’s household. And then there was silence, his mother gone—living rough somewhere far away—and a house full of stifled people. What had William learned from it all? That sometimes you just had to wait—and sometimes you had to walk away, never letting your feelings follow you.

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