In Second World War Poland, a prisoner closes his eyes and pictures a sunlit cricket ground. Across the yard of a Victorian poorhouse, a man is too ashamed to acknowledge the son he gave away. In a 19th-century French village, an old servant understands the meaning of the Bible story her master is reading. In the Catskills, 1971, a girl steps out of a Chevy with a song that will send shivers through her listeners' skulls. A few years from now, in Italy, a scientist discovers links between time and the human brain, and her lover's novel and his life. Throughout five masterpieces of fiction, exquisitely drawn and unforgettable characters risk their bodies, hearts and minds in pursuit of the manna of human connection.
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Sebastian Faulks is the author of ten novels. They include the UK number one bestseller A Week in December; Charlotte Gray, which was made into a film starring Cate Blanchett; and the classic Birdsong, which was recently adapted for television. In 2008, he was invited to write a James Bond novel, Devil May Care, to mark the centenary of Ian Fleming. He lives in London with his wife and their three children.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
It was a hot evening in July, and I was sitting on the porch in a chair made from an old car seat. I had a six-string acoustic on my lap and was running my fingers up and down the fret board, gazing into the distance. There was a can of beer open on the deck. We didn’t count alcohol as a drug and American lager almost wasn’t beer. Lowri was inside the farmhouse, and through the closed insect door I could hear her singing. Janis and Grace, the dogs, were rooting around in the yard.
Times like this, I often used to just sit there and stare out towards the woods. And I liked the idea that Lowri would soon be cooking, and that Becky and Suzanne, the stray hitchhikers, would be there too when it got dark.
There was the sound of a car coming up from the village. You could pick it out by the tower of dust as it snaked along the road, vanishing outside the clapboard post office with its tattered flag on a pole, coming into view again on the low-hedged straight beside the apple barns. It was an old Chevy pickup, painted green with a flower stenciled on the door, so I knew who it was before he even pulled over in front of the house: Rick Kohler with his kilo bag of white powder and the body panels of his truck stuffed with grass.
“Hi there, my man.” Rick was a scrawny guy with glasses. His hair always needed washing and the trousers hung off his nonexistent backside. He looked like the chemistry swot from school. He certainly knew a lot about drugs.
I offered him beer, but he waved me away. “I got something special for you, man,” he said.
“Christ, what next?”
Rick looked towards the Chevy. “Come on out, honey!”
The passenger door on the far side opened, and I saw a female head. Round the front of the pickup came a skinny girl about twenty-two years old. She had a floral cotton skirt, sandals and a white peasant blouse. Her dark straight hair was half tied back, secured by shades she’d pushed back on top of her head. She had suspicious brown eyes and she carried a guitar by the neck. Her high cheekbones made me think of a Cheyenne. She paused, unsure, and at that moment the sinking sun came through her hair from behind, through the short sleeves of her blouse, lighting her up. This was my first sight of Anya King.
She climbed the steps to the porch and awkwardly shook hands. Normally at a moment like this, Rick would be talking, rattling on like a typewriter. This time, though, he was as close to quiet as he could be.
Lowri came outside and Rick introduced her to Anya, who stayed kind of reserved.
“I hope you don’t mind,” said Rick. “I asked a few other people to come up later on as well.”
“From the city?” I said.
“Sure thing,” said Lowri. I knew she did mind, a little, but would think it wrong to say so.
“Guess they’ll be here about nine,” said Rick.
I suggested we go to Maria’s place to swim first, and Rick said that was cool. With the money from two platinum albums, Maria had bought the biggest house in the neighborhood. A refugee from LA, she spent summers upstate with her husband, John Vintello, who was a lawyer with MPR Records in New York, kind of a straight arrow, not a shyster.
The pool was in the yard with apple trees round it. Maria put a Dave Brubeck record on the outdoor system. Rick came out through the French doors, naked, walked through the hissing sprinklers on the lawn and jumped in the water. Maria came out from the summerhouse at the far end of the pool, also naked, the skin of her breasts shining with suntan oil. I never much liked this communal naked thing, but it was okay once you were in. I looked back to the house, where Anya was sitting on a lounger, sipping a drink. She’d put on a straw hat and looked like she wanted to stay in the shade.
Rick leaned against the side of the pool, threw his arms back over the edge, and talked to Maria. His hair hung over his shoulders and drops of water fell from his mustache. He was getting up to full speed now, yattering away, and I wondered if he’d had a quick snort indoors.
John, Maria’s husband, came back from the city, driving his station wagon up from the railway halt. He was starting a month’s vacation and was in a happy state of mind. MPR had three acts in the Billboard Top 20 and they had six people from A & R out on the road scouting for new talent. John was planning to sail a boat with Maria and a couple of friends from Key West down to the Caribbean. He’d asked a few weeks earlier if Lowri and I would like to come aboard, and we had both pictured storms blowing in from the Gulf of Mexico and Maria’s pill habit in a cramped space. “But you’re a Brit,” said Lowri, “you’re meant to have the sea in your blood.” “And you’re a Yankee girl, you’re meant to be a pioneer.” “Horses, Jack. Covered wagons. We left the sea at Plymouth Rock and never got our feet wet again.” After the two of us had spent an entire evening calculating what might be the longest period between landfalls we knew it wasn’t our scene.
There was no swimming for John. He brought out some beers and a jug of margaritas. The sun was going down and I called Lowri from the phone in the hall. She said two of Rick’s friends had already showed up from New York—Denny Roberts, whose band Blue Ridge Cowboys had had a Top 10 album in the spring (a kind of country rock thing with interesting harmonies), and his folksinger girlfriend, Tommi Fontaine.
We took two cars back to the farm, and I finally got Anya to talk a little. Her voice was rich and low. She told me she’d been playing in a coffee bar in the Village when Rick came up and spoke to her after her set. “I was, like, a little distrustful of this guy coming on to me. I’ve been handling my own material for three years. Making my own bookings.”
“You were still in a coffee bar?”
“Sure. But a New York coffee bar. To a girl from Devils Lake, North Dakota, a Village coffee bar’s as good as Radio City.”
“How long have you been in New York?”
“Two years. I had a job in a kind of songwriting factory for a bit.”
“The Brill Building?”
“Yeah, like that, only worse. In Brooklyn. We were in a row of small cubicles. It was like a musical reform school. A state pen for tunesmiths. I sold two songs. Two B-sides.”
“And you left?”
“Yeah, I’d started hearing songs on albums that weren’t made for commercial radio. Songs with real words. I saw you could write a song about . . . you know, anything.”
“Not just love songs.”
“Sure. And you could write for your own voice, to your own strengths.”
“Are we going to hear you play?”
She smiled—the first time I’d seen her smile. It was a little lopsided. “It’s a long way to bring a guitar and leave it in the trunk.”
“I look forward to it. Rick Kohler has great taste.”
She looked at the floor of the car, then back up at me. “I liked your last record, by the way,” she said. Her eyes were flaring with light, but guarded.
“Thank you. We’ve pretty much broken up. The band, I mean. I didn’t like the production. I thought it was too West Coast.”
Anya focused on rolling a small cigarette with tobacco from a tin in her Mexican shoulder bag, as though she felt she’d given enough of herself for now. She felt no awkwardness in just shutting down. There were no fade-outs, no good-byes.
The farmhouse we lived in had once been little more than a barn and was still only half converted. In the music room at one end of the ground floor, there were a piano, three guitars, various harmonicas, maracas and tambourines, and a double-height window that gave onto the woods. At the other end of the ground floor, Lowri had made a living space with sofas and a kitchen and a brick fireplace, which we seldom used for fear of setting light to the whole building. There were red curtains at the window, cottage furniture and always jars of wildflowers. The two bedrooms were upstairs, in what had once been a hayloft.
Two more friends of Rick’s showed up, plus Becky and Suzanne, and after we’d all eaten we went outside and sat on the grass. Rick and I took guitars and played a bit just to set the atmosphere, which was fairly mellow in any case, with red wine and some fat joints going round. It was still hot. We’d brought out a couple of hurricane lamps and some candles and you could see the moths zooming about crazily.
I remember so well how Rick laid down his guitar and stood up, smirking from ear to ear, like a kid who knows some stupendous news.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, bowing, his red cigarette-end arcing back in the flourish of his hand, “may I present to you something the like of which you have never heard before in your life, the unique . . . Anya King.”
Anya, cross-legged and unsmiling, took up her own guitar and began to finger a few notes, stopping to tune the strings. She had a delicate picking touch with the right hand, and the sound of the instrument was ethereal. It wasn’t the metal six-string tone we were all used to. I wondered whether it was the guitar itself or the tuning.
“Okay,” she said. “I’ll sing four songs. This first one’s called ‘Genevieve.’ ”
For a long half minute, the fingers picked with fussy precision, seeming to use the top three strings only. At last the thumb flushed an arpeggio, bringing the lower notes in for the first time, then it was back to the home chords, minor, frosty. And then came the voice. It was high and clear, m...
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