ExtractRead section 1 of the novel Dead Men's Fingers

These scanty things, and besides these a few (though precious few) others, were what his mother's death meant to him, incomplete, fragmented images, a fossilised leg bone and vertebra and a jagged broken tooth of what should by rights have been a colossal beast, a gigantic recollection, dwarfing the trivial others, but which did not have the same force to preserve it, no sudden shock or shame, just long-drawn-out uncomprehension and misery. It was a pattern matched by almost all the other major events of his life, each of which remained in him simply as a loose assemblage of broken parts, fractured remnants of things so huge, so extended, that they had been - and could only ever have been - preserved shallowly, vaguely, barely.

But of course, there were exceptions. Because for one, there was Karen. Karen White, sitting sobbing on a green knoll, the golden spring sun lustrous on her fair braided hair, her pretty face destroyed by her crying, made ugly and distorted by it. As he approached she lifted a dirt-grimed hand to her face and dragged it across her mouth and nose, leaving a muddy, snotty smear.

"What's up?" He sat down beside her, tried to comfort her without touching her, thinking she would scream and scream if he touched her. "Have you hurt yourself? Where's it hurt?"

Weakly she motioned away from herself. She muttered, "Drowned," the word coming graphically from her mouth with watery bubbles of spit and snot. She screwed up her face, began to sob again, harder, sobbing the words, "She's drowned. 'Liz... 'Lizabeth. She's..."

That was one fossil, just one of a vast collection, one of the few non-trivial ones. Strangely, he didn't connect it with the one it logically went with: him scrambling through the field and to the bank of Lonely River, racing alongside the water and plunging in and dragging the body out. No, not with that one. In his mind, whenever his mind could bare to winkle it out and examine it, he married it up with another, much later recollection, of Aunt Rose giving him a bouquet of flowers to lay on the bank of the river, by the spot where the little girl had died. The whole bank was decked out with flowers, a bright pretty show for an event so sad. From them all he had singled out just one bunch, to read its simple message: You will be dearly missed. You were a lovely girl. Rest in Peace. It was the smallest bouquet there, hand-picked wild flowers rubber-banded together. The note was signed Karen White.

Sitting on the bank, his feet dangling over the water, he took the wrapping from his flowers and tossed it high, watching the wind catch it and gust it away from the river. Then one by one he dropped his flowers into the water, red roses, white roses, pink and yellow carnations, each one swept away, down the stream, some washed ashore and the rest, the majority, caught in little eddies and whirlpools and sucked under. Only his note, protected by buoyant waterproof plastic, made it through the eddies and 'pools, capering down the rocky freshet where the water sang so pitifully, then round the elbow and out of sight. He couldn't remember now what the note had said - his aunt had written it, he hadn't known what to say.

He spent idle minutes at the dresser, watching swallows zigzag over the square of cerulean blue sky through the window. Without his noticing, the noises of children ceased, and as a clock in the hallway struck the hour - ... three, four, five - he rose and glanced out and saw that the neighbours had gone in, though the barbecue was still smouldering, the end couple were still sipping iced drinks.

He did a bit more nosing about in the bedroom, looking in cupboards, the wardrobe, idly curious, fingering personal effects with detached disdain. The wardrobe was half-empty of clothes - one side empty, the other filled with women's clothing - and downstairs he found the rest, men's shirts and trousers, socks and underpants, a mountain of laundry heaped on an armchair by an ironing board. They ought to have been washed and pressed and replaced in the wardrobe already. They were a token of absence, so long unused that they had gone stale and needed washing en masse, ready fresh for the homecoming. Briggsy, returning, wouldn't much take to seeing them there, all out of place. Or maybe he would - a house all tidy and spick-and-span might have seemed sterile, artificial for the lack of disorder that was a vital part of a home's homeliness. Maybe it was a careful ploy on her part, a well-laid plan of making him comfortable as soon as he returned. "Same old mess in here, I see. It's like I haven't been away."

Available for purchase now

Buy the e-book version of Dead Men's Fingers online via Amazon.co.uk (UK readers), and Amazon.com (North America).

The novel is also available as part of an omnibus edition with Sheldon's other novels, Delhi Deadlines and Virtually, via Amazon.co.uk (UK readers), and Amazon.com (North America).


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