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Authors: Karin Altenberg

Breaking Light

BOOK: Breaking Light

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First published in Great Britain in 2014 by

Quercus Editions Ltd
55 Baker Street
7th Floor, South Block

Copyright © 2014 Karin Altenberg

The moral right of Karin Altenberg to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Every attempt has been made to attain licences to reprint lyrics from the following songs: ‘Put the Blame on Mame' by Allan Roberts and Doris Fisher, Sony ATV; ‘Crazy Man Michael' by Richard Thompson and Dave Swarbrick; and to reprint the extract from
Light in August
by William Faulkner, Curtis Brown. Any omissions should be notified to the publishers, who would be happy to make amendments to future editions.

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

HB ISBN 9781780877150
TPB ISBN 9781782068105
EBOOK ISBN 9781780877167

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places and events are either the product of the author's imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

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Till mamma och pappa
migliori genitori

Memory believes before knowing remembers.

William Faulkner,
Light in August

Michael he whistles the simplest of tunes,

And asks of the wild woods their pardon.

For his true love is flown into every flower grown,

And he must be keeper of the garden.

Richard Thompson and Dave Swarbrick,
‘Crazy Man Michael'


He stops for a moment, turning the keys in his pocket. A single car creeps past and his gaze follows the beams of its headlights until they pick out one of the oaks at the bottom of the street; its bare branches are veins feeding blood to the dusk. Then the car is gone and gloom settles again over the village. He listens into the drizzle. Nothing.

He turns back into the fractured light cast from a couple of old-fashioned lanterns on either side of the door. Somewhere above, the wooden sign hangs heavily from its chain. He can't see it now but remembers well the painted hare and fox. He pushes the door open and steps inside, on to a sludgy carpet. To his right, a fire is failing in the grate. There's a faint smell of wet dog but the space in front of the hearth is empty now, where normally a beast or two would be resting after a walk on the moors. A thin man enters from the room behind the bar and for a moment, as the door swings open and shut, there's the glare of strip lights and the hum of a dishwasher.


‘Can I have a pint of your local draught, please,' he says, placing one arm on the polished wood of the bar.

The barman pulls the beer. ‘It's very quiet this afternoon; must be this God-awful weather.'

‘Yes,' he agrees.

‘Here you go, sir.'

‘Thanks.' He takes his first sip of the bitter and looks around the room. It's as good as empty, except for a lonely figure in the corner, reading a paper. A TV with the sound turned off is flickering above the bar and both men stare at it as the news comes on. There's a photo of a man in his mid sixties. You can tell he is heavyset, although the picture is only showing his face. It's a bit grainy and the eyes look dull. There's nothing much to him.

He hears a rustle of paper as the figure in the corner looks up at the screen. It's a woman – quite small and plump, he notices, but he cannot make out her features.

‘Good riddance,' the barman snarls. ‘He was an unpleasant fucker; came in here a few times. Never liked the look of him.'

He takes another sip from his pint.

‘They sent him down for ten years. Apparently a new witness came forward. About time, too.' The barman shakes his head.

‘Yes,' he agrees, ‘it was about time.'

The barman looks at him. ‘You from around here, then – or just visiting?'

‘I've just acquired a house down the road.'

‘Oh, yeah? Which one would that be?'


‘I see.' The barman falters and looks at him again, more intently this time.

Something touches the air between them, something damp and chill. He hears a dull thud behind him and turns towards the door. Then he stares into the corner again; this time there's only a shadow – and a newspaper lying open on the table. There was something vaguely familiar about the woman, he realises now that she is gone.

He sighs. The clock behind the bar says five o'clock; two arms reaching out from the heart, one slightly shorter than the other, stunted, damaged.

‘I should get going,' he says and feels in his pocket for some change.

‘Well, welcome to Mortford. I hope you will drink here again soon.'

He smiles and nods and then looks at the clock again. Five o'clock does not look right, he thinks for the first time; not quite balanced, slightly askew.


Mr Askew looked up from the bed into which he had just pressed a row of scillas and snowdrops – the fragrant kind. Normally he would have planted the bulbs in the autumn, but there had been little opportunity until now. He stretched his back and looked at the neat track of tender blue and white. Like the skin on the inside of a young woman's arm, he thought. He had decided to divide the small allotment into two parts of unequal size: the larger area would be dedicated to aesthetics – to colour and scent – and the smaller patch to produce, if only for the satisfaction and comfort of the sprouting. He loved the show of stealth and secret strength as the fingers and ears of tender vegetables stretched up through the crust of earth. The previous allotment holder had planted a couple of roses and a viburnum. The latter for a bit of evergreen, he suspected, but he did not care for it – it was a crude plant with little elegance and it had a sweet scent borrowed from more distinguished cousins. The roses were another testament to his predecessor's lack of imagination.

A woman was working in the allotment next to his. She wore a pea-green veil, partly covering her face, and a red dress with matching leggings showed from under an ugly padded jacket. She worked silently, methodically turning the fragrant soil. Every now and again she would reach for a bucket at her side and fetch a handful of orange peels, which she scattered over

the hummocks of earth. Her movements were gracious as she balanced and swayed like a line dancer between the ridges and furrows of her miniature field. The frail February sun that had come out to warm the earth, taut and exhausted by winter, picked out the flowing fabrics around the thin woman. It played with the folds of her green veil for a moment before swathing her in a shawl of warm light. Mr Askew blinked once and cleared his throat.

‘Ahem, excuse me, madam,' he mustered, although his voice sounded hoarse. ‘What's that you're planting?'

The woman seemed to hesitate in her movements but did not look up, pretending she had not heard. Mr Askew felt the chill of the ground seeping into the bones of his fingers and stood up stiffly to warm his hands in his armpits. He was a tall man with long, heavy limbs and large feet. One shoulder somewhat lower than the other, it was as if he was leaning ever so slightly away from something looming over him. The face revealed less. Unknowable. And the eyes, too dark to read, quickly averted, as if from a mirror. His hair was dark too, almost black under a Coney Island baseball cap, and he wore a neatly trimmed silver moustache that seemed curiously out of place – as if from another era; a forgotten joke. At his age, his joints were a consideration but they had not yet become major indignities and there was no sign of real weakness running through his bones.

She was in her mid fifties, he reckoned, but surprisingly girl-like in her movements. There was a sapling in her lot – a young rowan tree – so tender it was barely distinguishable against the marbled winter sky.

The frosted caw of a crow lanced the air and broke. He cleared his throat so suddenly that she looked up for a moment and the
cold light seemed to expand. ‘Did you know that the moor used to be forested, thousands of years ago?' It was a remark rather than a question. ‘Where are all the trees now? Gone, I tell you.' Yes, he
telling her and it surprised him. His life was mapped in silence these days. If he had left it unexplored, it was less from idleness than from not wanting to know. Like a box packed long ago and left unopened, the string still tightly knotted.

Now, he thought instead of how the trees had been cleared by prehistoric farmers and how what remained had been used up later as firewood in the blowing houses for smelting the tin, or as timber for shipbuilding. The subject interested Mr Askew, the relationship between human industry and nature. He might have been grinning as he took a shuffling step towards the woman. She pulled her veil closer around her face, tucking in an escaped strand of black hair.

‘So, you see, Dartmoor forest was a wood without trees. You couldn't see the trees for the forest, aye?' The joke made him snort but then he grew thoughtful. ‘When it comes to nature, man has only got himself to blame.' It was the truth as he knew it.

But truth was a tricky concept – one that he had never learnt to enjoy. He was used to being less certain. It was the state of trying to understand that possessed him. Perhaps this was why he persisted in wanting to tell this silently flowing woman about trees. ‘Do you know,' he continued ardently, ‘that it takes two hundred years for an oak to mature?' He could feel now that she despised him and that she wanted to leave but wouldn't; for some reason of her own, she needed to know what he had to say. He said it quickly, as if reading aloud from a book. ‘So it grows for two hundred years, then it sits still, it rests, for another two
hundred years and then it dies for three hundred years.' He was gasping but could not stop himself. ‘I wish we were more like trees, you know. There's so much in our lives we have to endure – and always in a hurry.'

She had stopped in her track and he knew she had listened. Yet, when he finished talking she gathered her tools into the bucket that had held the orange peels and turned to go. Her movements were soft and floating, defined by the loose fabric under the dull jacket.

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