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The ShortRead: Kate Atkinson

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The ShortRead of 13 May

God in ruins

A God in Ruins

Author: Kate Atkinson

What's the story: How much influence do you think you have over your own life? Sure you can pick which box-set you're going to work your way through over the next month - but you don't really get a say on how the course of the 21st century pans out, do you? 

A companion novel to her 2013 hit Life After Life - which saw Ursula Todd relive the events of her life again and again with infinite chances - Kate Atkinson now turns her considerable talent to Ursula's younger brother, Teddy. RAF bomber pilot, occasional poet, caring father, A God in Ruins sees Teddy stuck living in a future he never expected to have. A brutal, brilliant and incredibly likeable novel.

Release date: Out now


Extract

30 March 1944
The Last Flight
Naseby

He walked as far as the hedge that signalled the end of the airfield.

The beating of the bounds. The men referred to it as his ‘daily constitutional’ and fretted when he didn’t take it. They were superstitious. Everyone was superstitious.

Beyond the hedge there were bare fields, ploughed over last autumn. He didn’t expect to see the alchemy of spring, to see the dull brown earth change to bright green and then pale gold. A man could count his life in harvests reaped. He had seen enough.

They were surrounded by flat farmland. The farmhouse itself stood square and immoveable over to the left. At night a red light shone from its roof to stop them crashing into it. If they flew over it when they were coming in to land they knew they had overshot and were in trouble.

From here he could see the farmer’s daughter in the yard, feeding the geese. Wasn’t there a nursery rhyme in there somewhere? No, he was thinking of the farmer’s wife, wasn’t he? – cutting off tails with a carving knife. A horrid image. Poor mice, he had thought when he was a boy. Still thought the same now that he was a man. Nursery rhymes were brutal affairs.

He had never met the farmer’s daughter nor did he know her name, but he was disproportionately fond of her. She always waved them off. Sometimes she was joined by her father, once or twice by her mother, but the girl’s presence in the farmyard was a constant for every raid.

She caught sight of him now and waved. Rather than return the wave, he saluted her. He imagined she would like that. Of course, from this distance he was just a uniform. She had no idea who he was. Teddy was just one of the many.

He whistled for the dog.

1925
Alouette

‘See!’ he said, ‘there - a lark.  A skylark.’ He glanced up at her and saw that she was looking in the wrong place. ‘No, over there,’ he said, pointing.  She was completely hopeless. 

‘Oh,’ she said at last.  ‘There, I see it!  How queer - what’s it doing?’

‘Hovering, and then it’ll go up again probably.’  The skylark soared on its transcendental thread of song.  The quivering flight of the bird and the beauty of its music triggered an unexpectedly deep emotion in him.  ‘Can you hear it?’ 

His aunt cupped a hand to an ear in a theatrical way.  She was as out of place as a peacock, wearing an odd hat, red like a pillar-box and stuck with two large pheasant tail-feathers that bobbed around with the slightest movement of her head.  He wouldn’t be surprised if someone took a shot at her.   ‘If only,’ he thought.  Teddy was allowed – allowed himself - barbaric thoughts as long as they remained unvoiced.  (‘Good manners,’ his mother, counselled, was ‘the armour that one must don anew every morning.’)

‘Hear what?’ his aunt said eventually.

‘The song,’ he said, mustering patience. ‘The skylark’s song. It’s stopped now,’ he added as she continued to make a show of listening. 

‘It might begin again.’

‘No, it won’t, it can’t, it’s gone.  Flown away.’ He flapped his arms to demonstrate. Despite the feathers in her hat she clearly knew nothing about birds.  Or any animals for that matter. She didn’t even possess a cat.  She was indifferent to Trixie, their Lurcher, currently nosing her way enthusiastically through the dried-up ditch at the side of the road. Trixie was his most stalwart companion and had been by his side since she was a puppy when she had been so small that she could squeeze through the front door of his sisters’ dollhouse.

Was he supposed to be educating his aunt, he wondered?  Was that why they were here?  ‘The lark’s known for its song,’ he said instructively. ‘It’s beautiful.’ It was impossible to instruct on the subject of beauty, of course. It simply was. You were either moved by it or you weren’t.  His sisters, Pamela and Ursula, were, his elder brother, Maurice, wasn’t.  His brother, Jimmy, was too young for beauty, his father possibly too old.  His father, Hugh, had a gramophone recording of The Lark Ascending which they sometimes listened to on wet Sunday afternoons.  It was lovely but not as lovely as the lark itself.  ‘The purpose of art,’ his mother, Sylvie, said – instructed even - ‘is to convey the truth of a thing, not to be the truth itself.’  Her own father, Teddy’s grandfather, had been a famous artist, dead long ago, a relationship that gave his mother authority on the subject of art. And beauty too, Teddy supposed. All these things – Art, Truth, Beauty – had capital letters when his mother spoke about them. 

‘When the skylark flies high,’ he continued, rather hopelessly to Izzie, ‘it means it’s fine weather.’

‘Well, one doesn’t need a bird to tell one if it’s good weather or not, one simply looks about,’ Izzie said.  ‘And this afternoon is glorious. I adore the sun,’ she added, closing her eyes and raising her painted face to the skies. 


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