DISMISS

Benjamin Myers

Lone wolf of the north stalking the fictional hinterlands

Born in Durham, England. Based in Upper Calder Valley, England, UK

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English

About

Benjamin Myers is an author and journalist. His latest novel Turning Blue was published in August 2016.

Beastings (2014) won the Portico Prize For Literature, was the recipient of the Northern Writers’ Award and longlisted for a Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Award 2015. It was chosen by Robert Macfarlane in The Big Issue as one of his books of 2014.

Pig Iron (2012) was the winner of the inaugural Gordon Burn Prize and runner-up in The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize. A combination of biography and novel, Richard (2010) was a bestseller, chosen as a Sunday Times book of the year.

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Bibliography

Turning Blue, 2016, Moth

Beastings, 2014, Bluemoose

Snorri & Frosti, 2013, Galley Beggar Press / 3:AM

Pig Iron, 2012, Bluemoose

Richard, 2010, Picador

The Book Of Fuck, 2004, Wrecking Ball Press

Extract: Beastings

WHEN THE MOON was a pearl at the bottom of the tarn they walked over drifts of shifting shale and wild waxy grass polished to a sheen by the wind and when the great banks of cloud rolled in and they could see neither their hands in front of their faces nor their feet on the ground they sat where they were and waited it out.

   Once when they were walking the Priest stopped and raised a hand as if to swear an oath and said listen and the Poacher said what do you hear and the Priest said just listen and they stood in silence then the Priest said I can hear a baby crying and from the far distance along the broad fell and across the tight valley they could hear the shrill unfettered screams of a creature in distress.

   That’s them said the Priest that’s the child and the Poacher said that’s not them and the Priest said how do you know and the Poacher said because that’s not a baby that’s two foxes rutting mark my words - that’s two foxes at it - mating like - I’d know that sound anywhere. I’ve heard it a thousand times before and I expect I’ll hear it a thousand times more. What happens is the vixen clamps on and the dog swells inside her and it’s him what makes the screaming not her. The Priest said are you sure because that sounds like a baby to me and the Poacher said it may sound like a bairn but that’s foxes trust me Father though many is the night wanderer that’s made the same mistake as you.

   They listened some more to the howls of pain that cut through the night like the sound of something human being torn apart. A sound to freeze hot blood and still a beating heart.

   Then they pressed on.

 

1.

RAIN FELL LIKE steel rivets.

   It came down hard vertically pile-driving into the ground. It was the first full fall in the weeks since she had left St Mary’s.

   She had departed while the embers were still glowing. Upped and went before Hinckley started hacking in his pit. She’d bundled the bairn and gone out the back way. Took one of the tracks out of town. Away from the streets and into the trees.

   It was best for the both of them. To get out of that house. The only way.

   She had known it the first moment she saw him lift the baby. The way he had held it all wrong and shaken it when it cried. Shouting all the time in its face so that his voice went hoarse. It was a tiny thing; a fragile thing. It would only be a matter of time before those hands – hands used to smashing rock and hewing stone – would go too far. She saw a life that was already set in place just as hers was set from day one.

  The child was a rare and delicate egg that had fallen from a crooked nest.

  There were places they could go to beyond the horizon where she had heard that things were different; stories of the seaside and great mountains made from sand and boats just sitting there waiting to be sailed away.

   Some of the Sisters – the ones with the strangest accents - had talked of an island out there. They said it was free of serpents. Maybe there were other islands too. Maybe there were other islands that were empty where she and the bairn could live safely in silence.

   Because on an island in the ocean no-one can sneak up on you.

   It would be some time before they missed the bairn or did anything about it.  Of this she was certain. They weren’t even fussed; anyone could see that. Might be that they’d come after her; might be they’d see it as a blessing. Certainly he didn’t give a fig for the child. They had a head start at least.

   And now it was raining and the girl was under the cover of branches but she was wet and already shivering and soon the trees would end and the fells would begin and after that she would just keep moving. One foot and then the other.

   After many hours the rain slowed and the girl spied the tops of a cluster of buildings in the distance. She went towards them.

   Through the falling cords of drizzle she saw that it was a farm dwelling hunched in a hollow in the ground. It held one house and a number of out buildings.

   The girl approached the small-holding from behind and had to climb over a stone wall and push through furze that stabbed at her and then she was in the farm yard. She looked from left to right. She waited. A man stepped out from the barn. A dog followed behind him. The dog’s ears were standing to attention and it circled the yard low stalking the ground. It had smelled the girl first then heard her. Sight was the third sense.

   The man looked up and saw her and the collie growled. He gave a curt but shrill whistle and the dog crouched onto its stomach.

   The man slowly walked towards the girl. He stopped and squinted at her through the rain. The dog suppressed a growl.

   What you after said the man.

   The girl looked over her shoulder back the way she came to check her escape route in case he came at her.

   She pulled the bundle tight to her chest.

   You’re a long way from anywhere here.

   His voice was loud. It cut through the space between them. He spoke at the volume of someone who lived outdoors someone more used to talking to dogs and cows and sheep.

   You must be after summat he said.

   The rain was teeming now. It was running in rivulets from the rim of the man’s hat. She had never seen one like it before.

   The dog’s fur was matted into points and its ears flattened down. It hadn’t taken its eyes off her.

   Trying to get to the lake he said. A statement.

   She nodded. Uncertain.

   It’s slewing it. Bad day for you and the bairn to be out.

   The girl looked at the bundle held tight to her chest then back over her shoulder and then she turned her head to the man. He stared but she refused to meet his eyes; she could only look vaguely towards his form.

   The man stepped closer to her. He was wearing an old pair of Hessian boots that went up to just below the knee. The girl chewed at her lower lip.

   He saw the unsuitable boots on her feet that were caked in mud to her ankles and the dark damp patch on the blanket that held the baby. And still she wouldn’t meet his eyes.

   The bairn’ll be after feeding he said.

   The girl said nothing so he turned to the house and without looking back said there’s milk indoors.

   He walked across the yard but the dog stayed for a moment then he whistled and it turned and followed him. So did the girl.

   There was a run-off down one side of the yard and it was thick with slurry now. It was running fast and the flow carried the detritus of the yard: straw and effluence and dampened clumps of grist.

   The farmer walked around to the side of the house and opened the door.

   The girl paused a pace behind.

   Come on then if you’re coming.

   He turned and she followed through the doorway and into the scullery. It was a dark room and no warmer than outside but it was dry.

   Her boots rattled on the slate.

   There was a stone sink and straw underfoot to mop up the mud that they had trailed in from the yard. More straw in the corner to make a nest for the dog. Cured meat parts turned on chains that hung from ceiling hooks. Ham sides and bacon flanks. She held the baby tighter to her chest.

   She followed the man through to the kitchen and as she did he stopped and turned to her and she flinched but he was only closing the door to keep the dog out of the main trunk of the house. It scratched at the closed door but the man said get by in a low voice and it quietened down.

   The kitchen lead onto a small living room. There was no door between the rooms only a low stone arch.

   The man bent to stoke the hot coals in the range then pushed a handful of kindling in and pulled a metal stopper to fan the embers. The flames took to the branches. Then he picked up the scuttle and rattled more coal into the stove. The fire jumped into life and the sound of the cracking coal and the smell of the coke dust and the shadows on the dark walls put her back there. Back to the time before Hinckley and before the Sisters even; back to the house of her parents up top. A world of shadows and sounds and smells and feelings rather than clear images. Tension and fear and pain.

   Her parents were a storm rolling over the tops; their pairing was a flash of violence and the crack of the sky in the cramped room where the fire burned. The sound of slapping and stamping. A family activity was gathering to watch a sheep have its throat slit out front. The gleeful chatter of hungry voices as the black blood dripped into a bucket and the face of the animal as its eyes searched the crowd for an explanation were as memorable now as it if were yesterday yet the face of her father has been reduced to nothing but a smudge. A rough-edged shape.

   Her mother was a flour-dusted toothless thing who one day turned her back and kept it turned till the church cart and its passengers had crossed the bog on the cart track and disappeared down out of sight. Her tapped daughter gone with it.

  By that next spring the rest of the dormitory beds were full with the wild children of the fells now locked in tied down strapped and scratched and starved into shape. Time distorted and time crumbled. Her existence at St Mary’s came to be defined by a few stock symbols – soap and scars and slopping out; buckets and bruises and The Book. Life was one hard day followed by the next and for the girl the days stacked up to become first months then years and soon everything that had gone before diminished to a few stock memories. The past was blurred and no-one ever came to bring her back to a hill-top house haunted by past doings like this one here.

   So now she would do for the Hinckley bairn what someone should have done for her. Find a way out.

   There’s tea mashed said the man.

   He pulled an armchair over to the range then gestured to it.

   The girl sat.

   The farmer stood over her. Studied her face for clues.

   The bairn’ll be wanting summat other than tea though he said.

   She looked up at him.

   There’s milk he said. That’s one thing we’ve plenty of. Milk and bloody mud.

   He went into the scullery and came back with a jug and poured some milk into a small pan and placed it on the range then he poured tea.

   That’s the beastings he said. The mother’s first milk for the newborn. The best bit.

   The range was kicking out some good heat and the baby stirred a little. Its eyes flickered and its fingers curled around the girl’s thumb.

    Tit-fresh he said.