Regular readers may remember a couple of months ago when I shared an extract from my novel. Together with five other authors from around the world, our manuscripts were shortlisted for the 2020 Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize (Best Unpublished Manuscript category). While I did not win, it has since become apparent how strong the competition was this year and how each of us submitted a novel worthy of readership and, hopefully, publication. I am delighted that my fellow shortlistees and I have stayed in touch over the last few weeks, and many have agreed to showcase an extract of their books via this platform. So, I look forward to sharing more extracts over the coming weeks.
First up is Gail Kirkpatrick and an extract from her novel, Sleepers And Ties. You can read the blurb below. The extract is from the beginning of the book and follows protagonist Margaret as she quietly explores Lake Plover, seeking the perfect spot to scatter her sister’s ashes. Gail’s excellent pacing and description take us on a short tour of the lake, giving us a complete sense of the space while allowing us enough time to see, hear, and touch Margaret’s various sensations and memories. But it is the description of Margaret’s loss that really connected with me. It’s a only a brief part of this extract, but is extremely powerful, and I found myself revisiting it several times after completing my read through. I hope you all enjoy Gail’s writing as much as I have done!
Keep on writing!
Dan (Associate Editor)
Sleepers And Ties (novel extract) by Gail Kirkpatrick
Margaret returns to her childhood home to leave behind her sister’s ashes and to finalise her will. Unbeknownst to Margaret, her sister has left her eight million dollars. There is also a letter. Her younger sister asks Margaret to fulfil her dream of returning to its former glory a Beeching era abandoned rail line. As a museum curator, Margaret’s career has been filled with artefacts that once had a life of their own. She discovers that the past matters most when it affects how she will act now and for the future. Her life and her career are challenged and forever changed.
I park the car at the top of a hill, very near where we used to park the car when Dad took us down to the lake, the opposite side of where Massy and I had picnicked. I am a little hesitant, all by myself, with no one around, but I rationalize that being alone is better than coming upon some stranger. We had always planned to walk east to west, from Plover Station around the lake and up to the farm. If we’d followed the railway tracks, as dad had always wanted us to do, we could have walked directly to it. Adam made the journey on his hand-operated jigger, inspecting the tracks, hundreds of times.
When I open the car door, I am pleased with myself for recognizing the wild garlic that Massy pointed out. I pinch the leaves and squeeze them between my fingers, rub them back and forth, taking in the scent. If I look, I might be able to find wild sage and mustard too.
I unlock the trunk, place the ashes carefully inside. I’ll come back for them once I’ve located an appropriate spot. I grab my bottle of water, pull a granola bar out of my purse, and in a city gesture of precaution, throw the purse in the trunk too. I make sure the car windows are turned up in defense against mosquitoes, and slam the door shut.
As I walk along the stubble of last year’s crop, the resting field scratches my shins. How many cycles have there been of waist-high wheat to summer fallow and stubble? I consciously plant each foot into the earth, thinking of the Yoga practice I’ve neglected. ‘Root to rise.’ Closer to the lake now, the sun shines down and the lake glistens silver. I have never been to the Sea of Galilee, but I imagine it, at times, looking like Plover Lake does just now, calm, a surface deceptively willing to be walked upon. As I make my way through the aspen and birch, the soil turns to fine gravel and then loamy sand, as I come out onto the shore of the lake. A red-winged blackbird whistles overhead and flutters off. I inhale deeply, and take in the length and breadth of Plover Lake. A perfect lake, and yet neither a boat nor fisherman in sight.
In the years Dad was the station agent, and Mr. Novakovsky the hotel owner, a small sailing club had discovered the lake, and the town’s business men proposed that regattas on the lake would turn Plover into a booming summer town, be a reason for the railway to keep the station open. Of course, that never happened. How many other seaside or lakeside towns and villages had visitors come to by way of train? How many had dreams of prosperity until the trains stopped coming?
There is a small bay down along the shore. I walk back and forth, assessing its suitability as the particular place to leave Shirley. I can’t bring myself to say the words sprinkle or scatter. Scatter especially sounds chaotic. A couple of gulls glide overhead, their breasts glowing an iridescent white. There is no one else here to witness this end of the line, and so I begin to organize my thoughts for a few simple words of farewell. Words feel inadequate. The blue of the lake and the wisps of wind become the praises and prayers to the vignettes of Shirley down the years, playing out in my head. I thought I was finished with tears, but the wind off the water sweeps away the sorrow spilling from my eyes.
I think of phantom limbs, the sensation of something still being there when it isn’t, and in a way, this is what I am most afraid of, that soon I will never remember what it really felt like to have a sister, only the knowledge that it had once been so. Someone occupies a space in your life for a time, and then they don’t. I’ve carried on without father, mother, but Shirley’s going will leave a scar that will never heal. Lost, a chum, a confidant, and yes, at times an adversary. Someone with whom I shared a genetic code, so that at times simply by looking across the room we would know what the other was thinking. How wondrous is that? My feet sink into the sand.
The lake is tranquil, with only the occasional brush of wave against the shore. The water reaches for the toe of my shoe. The surface, glossy and level all the way across to the other side. I crouch and take in the calm. A fine spray of mist caresses my face. I inhale the scent of the muddy lake. A wave slaps the shore, and an urge comes over me. I want to be in the water––I need to be in the water–to know again what it feels like to float in the alkaline.
I scan the hills for tractors or farmers, but everywhere is deserted. With seeding finished and haying just starting, it is an in-between time for farmers. They are tending to machinery, buying hail insurance. No farmhouses, no people. It is secluded and private. I’ll be so quick, it won’t matter that I don’t have a bathing suit. I haven’t looked at myself naked in a mirror in ages. I shaved my legs in the hotel this morning. My hair is short now, it will dry quickly. From afar, I might be mistaken for a heron.
For God’s sake, would you just jump in. Shirley’s words.
There is no one to see me. This is Plover Lake, where I learned how to swim, where we buried each other in the sand, and once dug up a buffalo head. If I don’t do this, I know I’ll regret it when I get home.
I carefully remove my socks and shoes. The sand is warm. I glance over both shoulders, remove my sweater, then pull off my T-shirt. I step out of my trousers and underwear in one motion, unclip my bra, and place everything on my sweater on a nearby rock.
The water is cool––‘huh’––but not as cold as the ocean. I breathe in the brackish water, not entirely dissimilar to Pacific low tide. Blue dragonflies dart over the surface. Arms wrapped over my breasts, I wade out into the shallow water for a long way, then, fearful of a sudden drop, I get down on my knees, touch the lakebed, lean forward and slip my chest under the water. My chin skims the surface. At first, out of habit of ocean swimming and watching for jellyfish and rogue waves, I keep looking away from shore, facing potential waves. But this isn’t the ocean, and the only fish that have ever been here are called whitefish. Once oriented in the cool water, I flip over, spread my arms, and lay my head back.
I wait for it, and then exhale a giggle at my buoyancy.
The water reflects the dome above. Seagulls appear, and one after another plop down into the water, not far from where I float. This close, they seem massive, these descendants of small flying dinosaurs. A few ducks bob on the surface near the shore, unbothered by my sudden appearance. I reach down, pull up some mud, and brush a smudge across my cheek, wonder if it might have anti-aging properties, like those I’ve seen in infomercials of the black mud of the Dead Sea.
As I float, the temperature of the water changes, warming in intermittent sloshing. I frog-kick, but that makes for too much splashing and drives the birds away. When I lie still and breathe in, my breasts and stomach rise above the surface of the water. I close my eyes and let my arms go until I can’t sense their presence at my sides. I let my legs drop down, touch the floor of the lake, and then, ten feet from shore, my bottom hits a sand bar, and when I stand, the water level drops to my knees. The air is chilly. Much warmer to be in the water. I dive into the lake and dog-paddle back and forth, parallel to the shore. Jump up, and fall backwards. When we were kids, dad would bring us here during his lunch break, or after the station office shut for the day. He loved the water as much as we did. And when it seemed the station would close permanently, I suppose he needed to float weightless on his back too.
A pair of whooping cranes settle at the shore briefly, and then take off. The sun glares off the water and I look toward the silvery bay. If this is where I am going to leave Shirley to rest, it is the right place.
I get back onto my knees, throw some water over my shoulders to try to wash away the salt, and pull up handfuls of lake-bottom mud and throw them away into the lake. They break across the water in small pellets. I look back to shore, half expecting all of the townsfolk who had once played here to come running into the water. I swirl the surface in small arcs of sprays, stare into the distance, and then, when it is just too cold to tolerate, hug my arms close again and scamper across the sand to where I’ve left my clothes. I dry myself off with my T-shirt, put on my bra and panties, and then sit down on the rock. I brush my feet back and forth through the coarse sand, rubbing one over the other, to remove the lakebed mud. Now I know, in some esoteric impression, what it will be like for Shirley to be joined to Plover Lake.
There is a loud rustling in the tree line down the shore. I spring up expecting a fox or coyote. I look to where I’ve parked the car, and wonder if I should dash up toward the hill, when, from the bushes, a man emerges with a branch as a walking stick, and a backpack over his shoulder. I quickly pull on my trousers and sweater.
He looks harmless, but still I calculate how long it will take to run to the car. He is jotting something on a notepad and seems completely unaware of my presence. As he comes closer, his dark green hunting vest stands out. Could he be a park naturalist or inspector? No name tag or pin. A bird watcher? Might he be Massy’s birdman? What is his name?
He calls out in an English accent. “Hello there. I hope I’m not intruding?”
Has to be him.
(C) Gail Kirkpatrick, 2020
Gail completed an MA in writing in Lancaster in the UK and her work has been published in literary and trade magazines in Canada and the UK. She took inspiration for her manuscript from the communities and lives that were changed because of the rail closures in Great Britain and Canada. When she isn’t writing, she swims in the Pacific Ocean from her home on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, longing for the day when she can once again take the LNER and complain about the late trains and high ticket prices.
If you’d like to see your writing appear in the Write On! ‘Showcase’, please send your short stories, poetry or novel extracts to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can read more fiction, poetry, interviews and author advice in the latest issue (6) of Write On OUT TODAY and Available here.