Jenni Fagan

Curious, dedicated, strange, brilliant, complicated, engaged, chatty, funny, loyal, true

Born in Scotland. Based in Edinburgh, Scotland, UK

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Novelist, poet, screenwriter. Art galleries are my churches. Novels are a place I return to. Poetry is the oldest form of writing for me. I wrote my first collection when I was 7 for no particular reason. I adore landscapes. I collect vinyl. Leonora Carrington said people over seven and under seventy are very unreliable if they are not cats. So true. My debut novel is translated into eight languages. I wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation. Currently completing PhD and novels three and four.

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The Sunlight Pilgrims, 2016, William Heinemann (UK) Hogarth (US)

The Dead Queen of Bohemia (New & Collected Poems), 2016, Polygon, Birlinn

The Panopticon, 2012, William Heinemann (UK) Hogarth (US) also translated into eight languages with international publishers

Extract: 'The Sunlight Pilgrims'



There are three suns in the sky and it is the last day of autumn – perhaps for ever. Sun dogs. Phantom suns. Parhelia. They mark the arrival of the most extreme winter for 200 years. Roads jam with people trying to stock up on fuel, food, water. Some say it is the end of times. Polar caps are melting. Salinity in the ocean is at an all-time low. The North Atlantic Drift is slowing.

Government scientists say the key word is planet. They take care to remind the media that planets, by nature, are unpredictable. What did we expect? Icicles will grow to the size of narwhal tusks, or the long bony finger of winter herself. There will be frost flowers. Penitentes. Blin drift. Owerblaw. Skirlie. Eighre. Haar-frost. A four-month plummet will conclude with temperatures as low as minus forty or even minus fifty. Even in appropriate layers. Even then. It is inadvisable. Corpses will be found staring into a snowy maelstrom. A van will arrive, lift the frozen ones up, drive them to the city morgue – it takes two weeks to defrost a fully grown man. Environmentalists gather outside embas- sies while religious leaders claim that their particular God is about to wreak a righteous vengeance for our sins – a prophecy foretold.

The North Atlantic Drift is cooling and Dylan MacRae has just arrived in Clachan Fells caravan park and there are three suns in the sky.

That’s how it all begins.

On Ash Lane, along a row of silver bullet caravans, a blackbird lands on a fence post. His eyes reflect a vast mountain range. Standing at the back of no. 9 looking toward the parhelia are Constance Fairbairn, her child Stella and the Incomer. Neighbours step out onto porches and everyone is unusually quiet, nodding to each other instead of saying hello.

Stella imagines the brightest sun is for her, the second is for her mother and the last is for clarity, most recently lost. Her mother wants this back in their lives, but the child does not know why she should want it so much when clarity is no ally. It isn’t any kind of a companion at all. Stella stands, arms folded, frowning – right in between her mother and the Incomer, while three suns climb higher in the sky.

Constance does not see her child in the parhelia. She sees two lost lovers and herself in the middle – reflecting light. Caleb will be in Lisbon from now on and, after this last fight, she will never speak to him again. Alistair is back with his wife. Three suns to herald the beginning of a great storm. How very fleeting – any moment of stabil- ity. Constance is weary from matters of the heart but more so from worry for her child.

Dylan MacRae shades his gaze. He wears a fisherman’s jumper and a deerstalker hat, Chelsea boots, tailored trousers, he is overly tattooed, immodestly bearded – he is clearly taller than a man was ever meant to be. He rolls a cigarette and lights it. His eyes are red-rimmed in this brightness and he is dazed from seeing a woman polish the moon. In all his days. Three suns, seven mountains and so, so close to the sea.

Dylan looks up at the parhelia and he sees Constance, her child and him.

There is a curious coruscation to the Incomer’s eyes. The mother stacks wood. The child has two spirits. The entire landscape repaints itself in gold – crags, gorse bushes, the burn, sheep, a glint of water- falls, fences, stiles, whitehouses, the bothy and right up there on the seventh sister there is a stag; the train tracks curve around the lower mountains – even the scarecrows appear momentarily cast in metal.

The blackbird flies away without song.
The child gazes toward the suns.
Stella keeps her focus; this way she won’t be blinded but she will not have to look away for some time. She focuses, trying to absorb the suns’ energy deep into her cells so when they descend into the darkest winter for 200 years, in the quietest minutes, when the whole world experiences a total absence of light – she will glow, and glow, and glow.

Snowflakes cartwheel out of the sky – hundreds, thousands, millions – the three suns fade as caravan doors click shut, all along Ash Lane.

Stella scrolls through her phone. The LED lights up her face as she watches the YouTube video of a goth-girl in New Orleans again. Nobody could tell to look at her. She has a year-long film of her transition and at the end of it she has black lips and long hair and she is hot. Stella switches her phone off and turns over on her bunk. She has a perfect view of Clachan Fells from here. Outside haar-frost glitters across the woodshed in their back garden. Mist trails down the valleys in thin rivers of grey; it’s snaking over the hills from Fort Harbour. It’s 6 a.m. Frosted leaf-shapes pattern the lower corner of the bedroom window, ice-crystals trail up, with each one infinitesimally smaller until they disappear. Icicles will elongate from the bedroom windowsill soon – it happens every year, but never this early. They haven’t even had Bonfire Night yet. Stella pulls her owl onesie-hood up so the beak slumps down over her forehead. If the temperature plummets quickly enough, school won’t reopen. This morn- ing is the last assembly. Stella prays snow falls so fast and heavy that school will be locked, with empty classrooms for the whole winter. She reaches up to touch the curved metal ceiling above her and it is cold but she splays her fingers out; each nail is painted a different colour. Her mother lies on the wider platform bed below. She is still waiting for a response of some kind.

            – It’s not like picking a football team, Stella whispers.

            – I know.

            Stella walks her feet up onto the ceiling roof above her head – she grips onto her toes. A girl is a girl, is a girl, is a girl. That’s all she has. Also, her obsession with Lewis is becoming creepy, she might do anything at this point – if he would kiss her again. Anything. She’d even beg. She’d take a kiss anywhere. Even on the elbow. He doesn’t know what to make of her, though, does he? She could ask him out on a date. She is not afflicted with her mother’s zealous self-reliance and totalitarian independence from state and fellow man – she isn’t scared to say she wants something. Constance is a survivalist, she’s getting more extreme each year – it’s not even a joke.

            – I could see Mrs Jones’s brain cells grind to a halt when I explained it.

            – I can’t believe that woman is even allowed to be a school counsellor.

            – Why?

            – She’s just so . . . Catholic.

            – That doesn’t make someone a bad person, Mum.

            The light outside grows brighter. Stella passes down the muted YouTube clip to her mum on the bunk below and Constance watches it for a minute.

            – Gender is closer than anyone likes to think. Men won’t buy it because most of them are dickheads, she says.

            – Is that the technical term, Mum?

            – It is. We all share twenty-two identical chromosomes; the twenty-third is the sex chromosome and they don’t kick in for at least ten weeks. Everyone starts out female and they stay like that for months.

            – What, even Dad?

            – Even Jesus. Go tell that to the nuns. For some embryos the Y-chromosome creates testosterone and female organs change into male ones; about three months in, what starts out as a clitoris, in the X Y gene, gets bigger until it becomes, you know, a dick.

            – Mum! Can’t you say penis?

            – It sounds so sterile.

            – Why don’t they teach all of this stuff in Sex Ed?

            – Gender indoctrination. It’s state-imposed. The male body still holds the memory of it – the line below a scro- tum is called a raphe line, and without it you’d have a vagina; every embryo has an opening at the genitals and it becomes labia and a vagina or, when male hormones kick in, the tissue fuses together and it leaves a scar, which is the raphe line.

            – So, its like a vagina line?

            – It’s totally a vagina line.

            – Fucking hell!

            – Swear jar, Stella. There’s plenty male-and-females in one: snails, echinoderms; a cushion sea star spends its first three years female, then three years male. There’s twenty- one species of fish on the spectrum: angel fish, sea bass, snook, clown fish, wrasse – a female wrasse turns into a male if the dominant male dies. The prettiest is a butterfly, where the male side has big black wings and the female side has smaller purple wings. It’s a bilateral gynandromorph, male and female in one.

            – You should go back to teaching, Mum.

            – Fuck that! Kids are annoying little bastards, present company excluded.

            – Swear jar!

            – There is a half-female, half-male cardinal bird that is pure white down one side and bright red down the other! Google it. And survival techniques – there’s some great tips out there! I   was chatting to a survivalist in rural Alabama, godly man but he is the-shit when it comes to foraging. I found a great website for survival skill tips – can waste hours there lately.

            Stella grins.

            – This sums up my entire childhood: clever shit and apocalypse-survival-skills.

            – How many twelve-year-olds know how to start a fire with a battery? You can take that in for ‘special skills day’ at school.

            – Or I could borrow one of Alistair’s corpses and show them how to dissect a body.

            – That would do it.

Stella runs her hand over her stomach and vows to look in the mirror later. She would have had a vagina if it hadn’t fused. She doesn’t mind not having one. It’s not about how they cut the meat. She should paint that on a T-shirt and wear it to church. In a minute she will get up. She will comb her hair. She will wear coconut lip gloss and drink coffee straight and black. She runs her hands over a flat, flat stomach. Stella pulls her hood up. She steps down from her bunk, imprinting her mother’s mattress for a fraction of a second before thudding to the floor.

            The yellow beak sits above her forehead like a cap.

            Her mother looks like winter.

            Constance Fairbairn is possibly the most self-reliant person on the planet. The woman clearly doesn’t understand that she has to be at least half-human. Neither does her now ex-boyfriend, and soon he will be dead.

            – Do you want coffee, Mum?

            – Yes, please.

            Constance is dozing already, drifting away with thoughts of dual-bodied butterflies and morphing fish. Her mother has fine, white hair, eyebrows so light they are barely there; her eyes are grey as late-winter skies, she looks nothing like Stella and it isn’t that her own body tells a story she didn’t choose. It isn’t that. Stella tucks her bobbed hair under her bird hood. It is silky and straight and just as black as her irises.

            Stella flicks the temperature gauge on the wall.

            – Mum, it’s minus six. How cold is it going to get this winter, exactly?

            – Nobody knows. They say there might be icebergs.

            – That’s not reassuring.

            – Don’t worry, you can always show the other kids how to start a fire with a battery.

            – I am trying to fit in, Mum!

            – Sounds tedious.

            Outside there is a blue, blue sky and frost has dusted Clachan Fells mountains silver. Stella Fairbairn feels like she is going to cry, and nobody is even up yet. She is a swan wrapped in cellophane and everyone can see through her skin. Lewis will never kiss her again. She might as well forget it. She isn’t pretty, and she’s angular, and she has a penis. As tick boxes go for the most popular boy in school, those attributes are probably not high on his list. He did kiss her, though, and the only two people that know about it are her and him. He won’t kiss her again in case any of his friends find out and think he’s weird – that is why he won’t do it again. Or because he already knows he’d like it. He wants to, though. He wants to even more than she does. That feel- ing. A light flutter in her chest. It squeezes in. Her ribs are embracing each other. The light outside is so bright now it almost feels sinister. Clenching her teeth. Hoping someone will want her one day. If Lewis tries to kiss her again she’ll shoot him down, because he’s too ashamed to do it in public. Lately, fear is following her. It is two tiny pit-a-pat feet always skittering behind her. When she turns there is no- thing there, just the faintest imprint of footprints in the snow.