My turn on the blog tour today and I’m pleased to share an extract from the book.
On his way back from a meeting one day, investment banker Alex Wold finds himself standing up to his waist in the Thames, trying to guide a lost bottlenose whale back out to the sea. Later, as he’s drying out his suit and shoes, the news comes through that Tony Nolan – his mother’s ex-husband – has died of a sudden heart attack. Alex wonders if the universe is urging him to resolve a long-running feud with his environmentalist brother Matthew, and with the Wolds and the Nolans all heading back to Warwickshire for Tony’s funeral he now has an opportunity to do just that. But he finds Matthew as angry as ever, unable to relinquish his obsession with Caitlin, Tony’s troubled daughter, whose actions force both families to take an uncomfortable journey into the past. In Midland, the acclaimed novelist James Flint carries out a devastating exploration of what binds families together, and what tears them apart.
‘Hi Mum.’ ‘Hello dear.’
‘Yes, yes, everything’s fine. Well, that’s not quite true. I’m afraid I’ve got some rather sad news.’
‘Oh really? What’s that?’ ‘Tony Nolan has passed away.’
Alex stood, reached for the remote, and switched off the television. ‘Oh, Mum. That’s awful.’
Mia looked up from helping Rufus with his picture. ‘What is it?’ she asked.
Matthew Wold had just boarded the Reading train at Gatwick when his mobile rang. He wasn’t in the mood for talking but he dug it out of the pocket of his jeans and peered at the name on the little display. It was his sister. This was unusual, to say the least.
‘Can you hear me?’ ‘Yeah.’
‘It’s not a great connection.’
‘I’m on the train. Just flew in from Spain.’ ‘Oh, that’s better. I can hear you now.’ ‘We’re pulling out of the station. What’s up?’
‘Tony Nolan’s had a heart attack,’ said Emily. Matthew’s immediate response was irritation. ‘Well there’s a surprise,’ he said.
‘Well,’ said Emily, ‘it’s pretty serious. He’s dead.’
‘Don’t sound too upset! The funeral’s on Friday. Mum and Dad are going. I thought it might be a good idea if you came up for the weekend – gave them some moral support.’
At that moment Matthew’s phone emitted three sharp beeps. He looked at it: a low-battery icon was flashing on the screen, which then blipped out. Matthew swore, jammed the device back into his pocket and slumped down into a seat. Tony Nolan. That was the last person he wanted to think about right now. Why the big deal? Years had passed since his mother had been married to the guy. Decades even. Long before any of them had been born. And Dad would be there, and Emily. How much moral support did she need? What about his moral support? Had she thought about how he would feel about it? Because no doubt Caitlin would be coming back for the funeral as well.
To calm the distinct sense of panic he felt at the prospect of being in Warwickshire at the same time as his former girlfriend, Matthew reached for the copy of the Observer that another pas- senger had left rolled up on the table across the aisle. He scanned through the political and crime stories on the first few pages, flicking quickly past them until a small item on page five, about a whale that had become stranded after swimming up the Thames, caught his eye. As it was likely to, given that he worked for an environmental organisation called EcoPath and was returning from a visit to a research project investigating a severe cetacean die-off in the Mediterranean waters around Almerimar, a holiday resort on the coast of southern Spain.
As his easyJet flight had come into land at Almería a few days previously he’d been afforded a perfect view of the cause of the die-off. Slotted like motherboard components into the grey rock of the otherwise barren Andalucían landscape were fields. At least, they looked like fields, but they were somehow too neat, and they shone with a dull un-field-like gleam. It was only after he’d cleared immigration and was humming along the coastal highway in an air-conditioned coach that the source of the gleam became appar- ent: the acres of polythene sheeting that cocooned numberless rows of tomato, lettuce, strawberry and mange-tout plants, protecting them until their bounty could be dispatched to the refriger- ated shelves of Europe’s galaxy of supermarkets.
To the north of the highway then, these gigantic cloches; to the south, hotels and apartment blocks shaped like ziggurats, inter- spersed with lush green golf fairways laid like giant rugs from the lee of dunes right into the vast quarries that had been carved out of the hillsides to source gravel and stone for more buildings and roads. And along the top of the ridges thus formed, the highway itself: cars, trucks and coaches rolling along it like glinting beads of mercury.
A thick halo of haze strongly reminiscent of Los Angeles smog hung around Almerimar itself. It combined with the abstracted concrete architecture – white, colonnaded Moorish geometrics spliced with lozenges of rich terracotta tile and embellished with the viridian spurts of palms and yuccas – to give the place a sense of timelessness, the effect that of a visionary city perched on the cusp of an interstellar void from the cover of some science fiction paperback. But Matthew knew that this apparent isolation was an illusion. Like an infestation of mosquitoes, the greenhouses, golf courses and hotels all thrived upon the aquifer that extended beneath the apparently waterless desert, sucking the water up and lacing it with pesticides, fertiliser, domestic pollutants and human waste before flushing it out into the Mediterranean. Where the dolphins lived. The striped and bottlenose varieties that frequented the shores around Almerimar found themselves trapped between the twin rollers of this chemical pollution and decades of overfish- ing; unable to replenish their genetic stock as readily as their cousins in the open expanses of the Atlantic, they were being slowly crushed to death.
This at least was the hypothesis that the EcoPath mission had set out to substantiate. For ten years a single ship had plied this stretch of coast, collecting meticulous oceanographic data and photographing and videoing any cetaceans it could find. The skip- per, Rodrigo, was half-Spanish, half-Dutch; his command was a two-masted nineteenth-century Norwegian herring boat named the Litenese. He and his wife Mariana had bought it from the Norwegian government for a krona back in the early Nineties and restored it themselves before putting it in the service of the institute. They had then sold their flat, moved onto the boat, and gone wherever EcoPath had sent them. The cetacean die-off mission had been their first and so far only assignment. Since they’d started it they’d had two children, who had been brought up on board. It was just as well that they liked dolphins.
Matthew’s job was to manage projects such as this, which for the most part meant allocating the volunteers: generally middle- aged European or American professionals, many of them teachers, whose idea of a good time was paying for – or applying for funding to pay for – the privilege of spending a week or two working as research assistants. It was an eco-holiday with a purpose: once aboard the Litenese the guests would spend their stay collecting oceanographic data, taking and analysing videos and photographs of any cetaceans they came across, and adding the information to the study’s logs. The volunteers got an exotic and interesting holiday; the environmental project got years of committed manpower of a quality that it couldn’t otherwise afford.
Most of Matthew’s work was conducted from his desk at the EcoPath head office in Oxford, but he had to visit each project annually to conduct an audit. He had been the Litenese’s liaison officer for the past five years now, and of all the operations he oversaw it was his favourite. But much as he loved his sojourns aboard the herring boat, they always left him with a lingering sense of unease.
It wasn’t just his horror at the ecological transformations wrought by the Spanish property and agriculture booms that made him feel that way. It was worse than that. At bottom, he was envi- ous – envious of Rodrigo and Mariana and their boat, their life, and their kids.
It was absurd. He’d known them long enough to count them as friends as well as colleagues. But still he couldn’t help feeling that theirs was the life he should have lived.
Rodrigo’s natural charisma didn’t help. A beautiful man with softly sculpted good looks, golden curls knurling his head and sun-cured arms and legs, at thirty-three he was also one year Matthew’s junior. He spoke five languages, three of them perfectly, and captained the Litenese with an easy grace. Mariana was equally gorgeous, a compelling composite of vulpine Iberian features, lus- trous flamenco hair and a PhD in marine biology.
Their children, unsurprisingly, looked like they’d stumbled off the cover of a catalogue, and having spent most of their young lives at sea they tumbled about the boat with a level of assurance that verged on the uncanny. The first time Matthew had gone sailing with them a heavy swell had meant no dolphin sightings for anyone on board and a bad case of nausea for him. As he lay near the stern, clutching the poop rail pathetically and vomiting periodically over the side, Maaike – the girl, then about four tottered happily to and fro across the decks, bringing him a succession of plastic dinosaurs which she seemed convinced would help alleviate the wretchedness of his condition. Which of course they didn’t; they just lent it an extra dimension of existential angst. Since then Matthew had spent enough time on boats of one kind or another for seasickness to no longer be a problem. But the jealousy and the sense of personal failure and inadequacy that accompanied it remained. So despite what was on the surface of it an amiable few days spent updating his files on the dolphin study blessed by remarkably settled weather for the time of year, he’d left the Litenese in a bitter mood.
At Reading Matthew changed trains for Oxford. By the time he reached his flat in Summertown, Max, his mongrel feline, was in need of food, water and attention – and someone to clean up the turd he’d laid on the worn laminate flooring of the tiny kitchen in silent protest at the length of the period that had elapsed since the upstairs neighbour had last come by to check on him.
Matthew swore at the sight and smell of Max’s message and then – first things first – plugged in his phone. While electrons skipped into the battery he rattled some Science Diet into Max’s dish, emptied his litter tray, dealt with the rogue stool and opened the back door to let in some fresh air. He was in the process of chiding the animal for destroying yet more of his already battered hall carpet, Max’s favourite solitary pastime, when the mobile beeped. It lived.
He checked the screen: a voicemail from Emily. Standing with his head bent in order not to dislodge the power cable from its socket, he watched Max chase the gritty pellets around his bowl while his sister explained that he really actually did need to come home.
Christ what a pain. He couldn’t leave Max again, not so soon. There’d be nothing left of the carpet. But he knew his family. They’d tell him they didn’t mind whether he came home or not, and then when he didn’t go they’d beat him up about it for months to come. And besides that, again, there was Caitlin.
Matthew poured himself a glass of water and took it into the bathroom, where he washed his face and cleaned his teeth. Three steps back across the hallway and he was in the bedroom, the larger of his flat’s two rooms. The bed had not been made since he’d last slept there a week before. He didn’t bother to switch on the light, just sat on the edge of the mattress while he kicked off his shoes, pulled off his hoodie, and removed his socks and jeans. Then he collapsed backwards, pulled the carapace of duvet up over his head, and assumed a semi-foetal position in which he remained for several hours, quite unable to sleep.
The church of Our Lady and St Benedict stands alone on its hill to the west of Wootton Wawen, set back from the road towards the edge of the deep cutting that accommodates the North Warwick- shire commuter line. Miles Wold must have passed it by car or train hundreds if not thousands of times. But until today he had never actually set foot inside the place.
Built of clay brick trimmed with stone quoins, sills and lintels and capped by a simple, steeply pitched roof with no steeple, the church was small – small enough, in fact, to be somewhat dwarfed by its more handsome and older presbytery. Miles knew that Sheila and Tony had been regulars here – Sheila was on the Parish Pastoral Council – but he thought they might have chosen somewhere grander for the funeral: central Birmingham perhaps, or even Walsall, if Tony had wanted to go back to his roots.
Still, he shouldn’t complain. Far easier to come here than to negotiate the M5 on a Friday morning. And as he and Margaret parked up and walked past the long line of luxury saloons that lined the roadway, Miles began to see the attraction. The position was commanding, with wonderful views over Wootton Park and the flood plain of the Alne, a landscape he had been told informed the geography of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. For many centuries it had been Catholic country too, of course, dominated by the Throckmortons over at Coughton Court and the Fitzherberts here in Wootton itself, as evidenced by the ancient Catholic cemetery in the grounds of the local Hall, where Tony was presumably to be buried.
Once inside, the favourable impression continued. Miles found the spare and elegant interior more impressive in its quiet way than those of many more elaborate churches five times its size: plain white walls supporting a hammer-beam roof with its rafters, purlins, ribs and braces all revealed to view; a little narthex and a choir loft fenced with a balustrade of matching oak; a set of coloured bas-reliefs depicting the Stations of the Cross set in a broken frieze round the walls; and lovely stained-glass windows. Apart from a few icons set into niches, and the altarpiece – a gor- geous golden triptych that, like the stained glass, pre-dated the church itself – there wasn’t really much at all. The overall impression was almost Protestant in its restraint. Which, Miles reflected, was probably the reason that he liked it.
He and Margaret had arrived in good time, but the place was already nearly full and plenty more mourners were still coming up the path, so they tucked themselves into seats on the central aisle, consulted the embossed order-of-service cards that had been placed on every seat, and tuned in to the atmosphere of rustling calm peculiar to funerals. Miles considered making a quip to Margaret about the suitability of an ex-wife’s presence at such an event, but suppressed the urge, guessing (correctly) that it was unlikely to go down well. Anyway, times had changed. No one was too bothered by that sort of thing any more. All anyone of his gen- eration seemed to care much about these days was their health. Everything else rather paled into insignificance.
The organist struck up Schubert’s Ave Maria and the hushed chatter died away. Once an appropriate level of hush had been achieved the priest walked in, followed by a beetle-like assemblage of pallbearers with the coffin on their shoulders, Tony’s son Sean among them. Miles couldn’t help but notice that the six men strug- gled slightly as they set the casket on the bier beneath the chancel arch. Tony had been a substantial man in more ways than one.
While the priest sprinkled the holy water the rest of family filed in and took their seats. First Sheila, then the brothers, Patrick and Conor, then, goodness, was that Jamie Nolan? Unless he’d kept his mother’s name, which was Blake, if memory served. Interesting that he’d put in an appearance. Come to see if there were any crumbs of inheritance lying around, no doubt. Miles wondered how Tony would have felt about that. And then Caitlin, bringing up the rear. Gosh, she looked thin. Positively bird-like. As she turned to sit Miles got a better view of her: cheeks hollow, big bruised pits around her eyes, some kind of bandage on her hand. She was clearly taking this much harder than the others. He hadn’t remembered her and Tony being especially close. But maybe that was just it. If there were unresolved tensions, then that could make it much tougher when it came to the end.
It wouldn’t surprise him. Soon after he’d helped the Nolans buy the house in Shelfield he’d played Tony a few times at squash.
They met on Saturday mornings in one of the courts at the recently erected sports complex just southwest of Stratford’s town centre, next door to the impressive new Hilton International Hotel. Both these buildings, with their long low profiles, banks of windows, large car parks and unadorned, modern facades, were, Miles had remarked to his opponent the first time they’d played, good evidence of how the town was changing.
Tony had nodded, mopped the sweat from his forehead with the sweatband he wore on his wrist, and cracked the ball noisily against the rear wall.
‘If you ask me it looks like one of my factories,’ he’d said, meaning the hotel.
‘That’s the style, now, isn’t it?’ Miles had puffed, misreading the bounce and sending his return clattering onto the tin. ‘Oh hell and damnation. What’s that, seven-all?’
They were pretty evenly matched. Tony had more power and presence on the court, about which he thumped and sweated and glowered in an intimidating manner. Miles was taller and skinnier, almost effete in his mismatched kit and schoolboy plimsolls, but was possessed of a competitive focus and a cack-handed coordin- ation that made him a tricky opponent.
He learned that day, though, that a victory over Tony Nolan came with consequences. As Miles had begun to edge an advantage in the game the businessman’s temper had become increasingly frayed, and he’d begun stamping and swearing about the court like an angry child. Eventually, after lunging for and missing a particularly fine boast of Miles’s that had landed right in the nick, Tony smashed his racket against the wall with such force that he broke it. He stomped out of the door and returned a few seconds later with another one, identical, a level of preparation that suggested to Miles that such behaviour was not altogether un- common.
More amused than flustered, Miles took the advantage and, soon after, the match. Tony sped off to his next appointment with barely a word, clearly furious at his loss, and Miles had thought no more about it until a few days later, when a peculiar letter from Nolan’s solicitor arrived at his office, quibbling the calculation of the fees he’d charged on the sale of the house.
Miles had been somewhat taken aback. Tony hadn’t mentioned anything about it when they’d met, though he’d had plenty of opportunity. He showed it to the firm’s lawyer, who confirmed it as an attempt to stir up trouble – perhaps Nolan’s solicitor chancing his arm in order to try to justify his own no doubt hefty fee? His advice was to ignore it and wait to see what happened next, advice that Miles took, although when he and Tony met for their game the following Saturday he took care to fluff several key points and lose the match by a small margin.
‘I think that makes us honours even,’ Tony had smiled while they’d packed their kit away. ‘I got a handle on those drop shots of yours this week. You rely on them a bit too much, you know. Leaves you vulnerable. You want to mix it up a bit more. Use more of the court.’
‘Thanks,’ Miles said. ‘Good tip.’
He was now the angry one. It was one thing to be bullied into throwing a match, quite another to be patronised about it. Positive now that the solicitor’s letter had been a subtle piece of gamesman- ship, he resolved to win their next encounter come what may. But when they met again his irritation affected his focus and Tony confidently dispatched him.
‘Still relying too much on those drop shots,’ was the comment, which left Miles seething. But an opportunity for further redress never came, as Tony found an excuse to cancel the next Saturday, and the next, and after that life moved on. They didn’t play again, and nor did Miles ever hear another peep from Tony’s solicitor.
At the time he had refrained from mentioned this little psycho-drama to Margaret, as she would almost certainly have told him that he was being paranoid. She was ready to forgive Nolan any- thing, he wasn’t sure why – as far as Miles could see he’d been as much of a bastard to her as he was to everyone else. Anyway, the habits of former partners were not something one really discussed, not when one valued one’s marital harmony.
The only time he’d ever seen her be really angry with him was the night that Sheila had shown up at their house in a terrible state with that big bruise under her eye. It had stuck in his mind because it had been Emily’s birthday, and he’d had to do most of the clear- ing up from her little party himself while Margaret comforted wife number two in the guest room upstairs. What had Emily been? Ten, maybe? Yes, that must be right, because she hadn’t yet started at Wardle’s. Miles remembered the balloons. Helium ones, filled from a canister they’d bought, floating all over the living-room ceiling. The prettiest things, even if they did remind him of the barrage balloons sent up over Birmingham like Flash Gordon rocket ships to deflect the waves of Heinkel bombers. Though maybe those were filled with hydrogen, not helium. That must have been one of his earliest memories – amazing he could still remember them, more than sixty years on. But he could. He would have been Rufus’s age. Just goes to show. Life sticks to you. He hoped Emily would remember her birthday balloons when she was his age. He’d read somewhere, in the Telegraph probably, that we were running out of helium. It was an element, so not something you could make, and once the Earth’s stock had been used up, they weren’t going to be able to get any more of it. Who’d have thought it? No more party balloons – you wouldn’t want to put hydrogen in those. No more barrage balloons, either, hopefully. Dark days, those had been. Very dark.
Emily had offered to make dinner that night, so as evening approached she found herself in her parents’ kitchen laying out a set of worn placemats decorated with watercolours of Calcutta street scenes from 1785, not long after the city had become the capital of British India. To these she added three wash-worn linen napkins; various items of stainless steel cutlery; three scratched silver coasters backed with battered cork; and a selection of tum- blers from the assortment in the cupboard over the dishwasher.
While she was laying the table she switched on the radio. It was tuned to Radio 4. It was always tuned to Radio 4: the volume dial was polished with use, the tuning dial tarnished by time. The six o’clock pips blipped out of the little speakers and carried the world into the room, and immediately Emily’s stomach started to rumble: so many of her childhood meals had been cued in by this sound that she’d developed a Pavlovian response to it. She took an apple from the fruit bowl and bit out a chunk, and at the same time reached into the vegetable rack and retrieved a brown bag of potatoes, which she carried over to the sink.
Though not yet green, the potatoes were soft with age. There would be more in the pantry, dug from the rows behind the house by the gardener in the autumn, then left to slowly rot for want of mouths to eat them. Why her mother still bothered Emily really didn’t know. It was another family idiosyncrasy, like the ability to persist as if there was only one media outlet
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