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The ShortRead: James Hannah

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The ShortRead of 25 March

A to Z

The A to Z of You and me

Author: James Hannah

What's the story: "A debut novel about love and death that will affect you deeply". Crumbs. You'd think James Hannah would choose an lighter set of topics for his first novel - but rest assured, this is a remarkably accomplished opening effort. 

Ivo narrates his story from a bed in St Leonard’s hospice. With a failing body and flaking mind, he begins to play a game suggested by his nurse Sheila, listing his body parts in an "A to Z" order and going through the memories each limb and bone invokes. The resulting journey of life, relationship and forgiveness threatens to bring a hefty lump to the throat. 

Release date: Out now


Extract

Adam's Apple

Adam's Apple means the Reverend Cecil Alexander.

Adam’s apple means me coming out of church, down the stone steps, trailing in the wake of my mum. We leave the chapel every Sunday, and take our turn in line to bid thankses and goodbyes and see-you-next-Sundays to the Reverend Alexander. I’m a kid. Short trousers, short legs. I’m actually scared by his enormous Adam’s Apple. It’s the biggest I’ve ever seen. It leaps and bounces around, like an angular elbow fighting to free itself from his throat. It makes me feel sick even looking at it. I just think, how doesn’t the man choke? What if he got punched right in it?

I know it might not be the right thing to do, to point it out. But you know me.

‘What’s that in your throat?’

The kind of questions a minister must have to deal with on the hoof.

If there’s a God, why must he allow the suffering of children?

Got your shirt on back-to-front then, eh?

So, what about the dinosaurs, then, mate? Explain that. See, you can’t, can you?

Frank says you said he could do the flowers next week, but you told me last week I could do them. Did you say that to Frank?

‘What’s that in your throat?’

He must have been asked this question a lot. Despite the embarrassed gasp and laughter of my mum, and a censorious hand swashed about my face, he is quick with his answer.

‘Oh, that’s a piece of apple.’

I frown at it very hard.

‘Why don’t you swallow it?’

He’s a great one for thinking on his feet. Part of the job description.

‘I can’t. Do you remember the story of the Garden of Eden? Well, it’s put there as a reminder of the moment that Adam was discovered eating the apple that Eve had given him. It stuck in his throat, see?’

‘My dad’s got one of them.’

‘Well, yes, of course. All men have them.’

‘I haven’t.’

‘Ah, no. No, no. Not yet.’

He smiles as he says this, with the air of a chess player goodnaturedly checkmating an opponent.

I’m very fond of Adam’s apples for that reason. I was totally satisfied with it as an explanation. And it didn’t put me off apples. But it was years before I understood all the repercussions that were echoing around his head as he said those words.

‘Ah, no. No, no. Not yet.’

You’ll fall, he was saying.

You’ll fall.

----

‘Morning, Ivo!’

It’s Jef. Jef the chef.

‘Any ideas what you fancy for breakfast this morning?’

Jefrey with a single ‘f’. Since school he must have had one career in mind. Except in the end they called him a catering manager.

‘Can I get you some eggs? Scrambled eggs? A bit of toast?’

They make him wear the black-and-white-chequered trousers and everything. Is that health and safety? In case his trousers fall in the soup, so he can ladle them out more easily?

‘You didn’t have any of your porridge yesterday, so I’m guessing you don’t want porridge today?’

He’s hiding behind his clipboard a little bit, lingering respectfully in my doorway. Half in, half out. He should have a black leather notepad, like a proper waiter.

I have never been less hungry. Not full, just not—

‘Hallo, Jef.’ It’s Sheila.

‘All right, Sheila, you still here?’

‘Yeah, I’ve got another hour and a half yet. You just got in?’

‘I’ve been in about twenty minutes. I thought I’d get these breakfasts sorted before the workmen arrive. Do you know what they’re doing?’

‘It’s nothing major, is it?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘I thought it was only going to be looking at the security lights outside. They can only get to them from the inside or something. Are they still on?’

Jef ducks to look out of the window.

‘No,’ he says, ‘they’ve gone off.’

‘God, isn’t that always the way, that it fixes itself before the workmen arrive?’

‘Sod’s law.’

Sheila looks down at me. ‘How are you supposed to sleep with a big security light on the whole time?’

I shrug inside, but I don’t know if it reaches my limbs.

‘I reckon it’s the hedgehogs on the lawn,’ says Jef. ‘These sensors are really over-sensitive.’

‘Safety from attack by hedgehog. That’s worth three thousand pounds of anyone’s money, isn’t it?’

‘Three grand, eh?’ Jef tuts and raps his clipboard with his pen.

‘Well, I suppose you’d better get a move on anyway, hadn’t you?’

‘That’s what I’m trying to do here, but we can’t make our mind up.’ He turns to me. ‘Scrambled eggs? Toast? I’ll do you some porridge, if you want it. Whatever you want. Try me.’

I don’t want anything. I shake my head.

‘No?’

‘I tell you what,’ says Sheila to me, ‘how about if we get you something simple, and you can see how you feel when it gets here? I’d like you to eat something this morning, even if it’s only a couple of bites. How about something soft and easy, like scrambled egg?’

I can’t answer. I don’t want anything.

‘Yeah? Scrambled egg?’ Jef is looking at me, brightly.

‘How about that?’ says Sheila. ‘Or poached? Or fried?’

‘I don’t do fried,’ says Jef.

‘Oh no, course! Well, scrambled then? Or poached?’

I can’t answer this.

‘I’d like you to have something. It’ll get your strength up, and maybe everything won’t look so gloomy, will it?’

So.

They’re waiting.

‘Poached.’

‘Poached?’

I nod.


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