A Good Death by Michael Bagley
Today is my stop on the blog tour for A Good Death and I am here today with an extract of this interesting book!
Author: Michael Bagley
Publisher: Clink Street Publishing
Published: 29th November 2018
Source:: Review Copy from Publisher
Add It: Amazon UK Goodreads.
Summary:The year is 2028 and it’s a stunning spring day on the Lincolnshire Wolds, when Bess finally persuades her Uncle John to tell her the story of the family scandal that’s been merely whispered about at weddings and funerals. We’re then transported back fifteen years where, as a young man, John Stafford is forced to chase his father across the USA and Europe.
We discover, over three time-zones, that A Good Death is essentially about three characters: an embittered, former military father, a quiet, troubled son, suddenly thrust into the midst of a family crisis, and a bright, questioning young woman, who acts as conscience to both uncle and grandfather. The relationship between all three is constantly tested, as John discovers aspects of his father’s past, and is forced to remember disturbing elements of his own history, when he was just a small child.
The novel is about love and hate and betrayal and in parts it’s a dark story. But all three characters are on their own personal journeys – which each feels compelled to make – and they don’t end until back in 2028, where fate, at long last, waits.
A Sunday in May 2028 –
It was time.
Bess felt it suddenly and for no apparent reason that she could think of. But, as with so many things she did these days, she decided to forget it for the moment, trusting that, when the moment came, she’d just know what to do.
She covered the salad with one of Uncle John’s ubiquitous cotton cloths, hung up the pinny – the plastic one with the photograph of Shakespeare smoking dope that made her feel exulted and vaguely uncomfortable at the same time – and opened the fridge.
Entering the garden the wonderful spring sun warmed her face and made her squint slightly as she stopped and looked. He was at the bottom, under the spidery arms of the plum tree. The breeze shook some pink blossoms free and they fluttered down onto the table he was laying. The four beeches rustled with joy and, like a timely herald from Fantasia, a white butterfly whipped past her nose, proclaiming its message: “It’s coming! It’s coming!” What ’it’ was, of course, was the real question. All she knew was that it had something to do with why she returned so many times to spend what her mother called, “the precious weekends of your youth, darling,” with her uncle.
“Bring the wine?”
She beamed and held it up for inspection. She’d known where it would be, just as she’d known the weather would be glorious and the birds would sing. And surely that was part of it; the familiarity and the wonderful, splendid certainty.
“Did you know the overflow on the downstairs toilet’s leaking?” asked Bess, placing the salad in its allotted spot.
“Yah. I’ll fix it tomorrow.”
He turned towards her and laughed loudly. They both knew his attitude towards DIY. And that laughter. The man was so bloody uninhibited!
“Were you always such an extrovert?”
He laughed again, then glanced at her in that keen way he had, eyes narrowed.
“Only with you, lass. Most of my friends think I’m introverted.”
“Truly. I was really quite shy as a boy.”
In truth she’d always sensed that, through the quips and the banter, right at his core, there was a sadness about Uncle John. And she’d often wondered, on the long car journeys over the Wolds, whether it was that tragic, distant part of him that attracted her, as if, God forbid, she were some adolescent character out of Jane Austen.
“So how’s my big sister?”
His voice always changed when he spoke of her. “Same as ever. Looking her age.” He shook his head.
“Cruelty, thy name is woman.”
“I thought it was ‘frailty’.”
“Since when did Shakespeare know everything?”
He didn’t look his age, of course and she wondered why she was so perversely proud of that.
They ate and drank under the plum tree, barbecue smoke keeping away the bees. Beyond the low fence emerald wheat rose to the badger wood.
“Lass, stop trying so hard. You’re beautiful, intelligent and sensitive, and we both know how rarely those three things come together.” She felt herself blushing and knew he’d notice; knew he’d make a joke to rescue her. “Consider the rest of the family, for instance.” There it was. ’The family’. “I, of course, have only beauty,” and she laughed gratefully.
She knew she wasn’t beautiful, though. “At 5 foot 11 inches in your tights,” as he liked to put it, “you could only have inherited it from your grandfather.” Also, with her narrow hips and little breasts she seemed even taller, especially in heels. And, with the sure clarity of late teenage, she’d begun to see her physical features as an advantage, learning to use them to emphasise movement and gestures, so that people noticed her. All in all, she was elegant, she knew. But it was only Uncle John who called her beautiful.
“And this, of course,” she said, “is from the great woman expert; someone who’s never been married. If your relationships last more than three months it’s been a good season.”
“Makes me dispassionate; an objective observer,” he said with another grin.
“You’re full of it, Uncle John.”
But she said it with a laugh. He turned and gazed down the brightly coloured garden, apparently watching his cat, called Cat, licking its paws. “You can’t give cats names.” It was time. She felt it so strongly now that, as she’d known it would, the plan of attack just popped in there, like the marshmallow man.
“What do you mean about the rest of ’the family’?” biting her lip.
As she knew he would, he raised his head and looked at her in that piercing way again, then down at his feet.
“Oh, nothing, I guess.”
“You’re doing it again.”
“You know perfectly well. You suggest something, then back away from it.
It’s bloody frustrating!” He put on a hurt expression.
“I know. Sorry, lass. It’s just that I don’t want you to think I’m a stubborn, prejudiced, middle-aged man.”
“I know you’re a stubborn, prejudiced, middle-aged man.” He was already laughing. “In fact, you’re sometimes stubborn to the point of incredulity. You’re intolerant of almost anyone except me and Cat, you’re often authoritarian, you’re more arrogant than I am and you break wind with the frequency of a ministerial cock-up.”
He was roaring now, tears in his eyes.
“Lass, that’s brilliant! You must write it down,” and he laughed again.
“John! The problem is you keep deflecting and you’re doing it again. Answer me! Whenever we have a family gathering you’re always taking the piss out of someone.”
“Is that a question?”
He lifted his hand.
“All right, I know. But I’m serious. I have a reputation, carefully nurtured, of being a grumbly, irritable, old sod, as you’ve just so ably illustrated. That way I get to spend most of my days on my own. With the exception of you, of course.” She resisted the temptation to sigh. That wasn’t just polite flattery. She’d known from an early age that her visits meant as much to him as they did to her. And she’d grown up with him always there, not just physically but in her mind, like a male benchmark. All the more reason why she had to know.
“You dislike most of the family, though, don’t you?”
He sipped his wine and peered at her over the rim, as if thinking how to reply, or expecting her to say more. She flicked at a fly, then sat up in her chair, determined, the wine loosening inhibitions.
“Admit it. When was the last time you talked to anyone in the family, apart from me?”
He seemed to stare at the wood. When he looked back she sensed something different.
“Yes, you’re the only one I like. Happy now?”
She should call it off at this point. Let him off the hook. But she couldn’t. She wanted to know; had always wanted to know. The whispered conversations at weddings and funerals.
“And there are reasons for that,” she continued.
He wasn’t smiling and her chest tightened.
“Of course there are reasons for that.”
“But you’re not going to tell me.”
She continued to look at him, silently willing him to answer the question, to stay on track. Inexplicably, he smiled.
“I’d rather not, lass, if you don’t mind.”
She should definitely leave it now, make a joke of it, claim her small victory and be gone. Instead she stayed silent and waited.
“Where’s all this leading?” he asked eventually.
“I don’t know.”
He was staring at her, those grey eyes hurt, accusing and she forced herself to stay quiet.
“It’s complicated,” he said eventually, sliding away again.
“Shall I tell you what I’ve heard?”
He nodded uncertainly, sipping at an empty glass.
“I’m pretty sure it’s got something to do with your father. Apparently, he had an affair.”
His expression changed abruptly, to one she’d only seen him use on plumbers and the Welsh rugby team. Her pulse quickened further and she felt sweat break out on her chest.
“Is that what they say?”
“More or less. I overheard Mum and Aunt Margaret talk about the other woman.”
“You’ve asked your mother?”
“Won’t talk about it. Refuses point blank.”
A further long pause while he shifted position. For some reason, she became aware of the noises of the day: the buzz of a bee competing well with a neighbour’s lawnmower, a blackbird squawking her alarm near the ancient, cream house.
“Is it true, what Mum says?”
“I doubt it. My father did have an affair. Oh, he did have an affair. But, as with most things in life, it wasn’t that simple.”
He placed the glass down and began to lever himself up, but there was no way she was going to let it go now. Playing her last card she conjured up her most reasonable voice – gentle, demure and childlike – the one that never failed with older men.
“Tell me about it, please.”
He stopped half-way up for a second or two, then sort of flopped.
“So,” he said and she licked suddenly dry lips.
“John, you can’t imagine how it’s been. There’s a family secret and it’s been kept from me. All through my life people have whispered and glanced sideways to see if I can hear. Relatives have stopped talking on my approach. It’s one of the great mysteries of my childhood, for God’s sake! And it’s always when your father’s name is mentioned or when you’re on the premises. It’s as if I’m a pariah because I spend so much time here. If it hadn’t happened so long ago I’d think it concerned me!” She felt herself losing it and let it come.
“When I ask, no one will tell me. Well I’m 20 now and it’s time!” Tears were pricking her eyes.
“I’m sorry, lass. I’d no idea.”
She shook her head and fought back the stupid tears.
“I know. I’m sorry, too.” She paused briefly and looked him straight in the eye. “But you have to tell me.”
With a gesture she’d never seen him perform before, he stretched his eyes.
“Bess, have I ever refused to answer any of your questions?”
She knew what was coming. He only used ’Bess’ when he was going to say something she’d find unpleasant.
“Don’t do this to me, John. I don’t understand! Why won’t you tell me?!”
His chest rose and fell in a long breath.
“Lots of reasons. You see the truth is not what people think. You either won’t like what you hear or you won’t believe it. Probably both. Because ….. because it will change our relationship. God knows why you want to spend time with me rather than whooping it up with your own age-group, but I’m grateful you do. And I don’t want it to change.”
She knew this, just as she knew that daffodils grew in spring and Mozart was the prince of sound. And she was constantly racked with guilt that she was glad he’d never married, or he wouldn’t want to spend so much time with her. She adored the way he showed his affection for her, in a way her parents never had.
But her heart was really racing now. She could actually feel it thumping in her chest because her instincts were telling her what her mind now did. He was going to give in. It was himself he was wrestling with.
“Your life will never be the same, if I tell you.”
She just nodded, not really understanding. But wasn’t that what life was for? What did he say? “There are only three things in life not worth encountering, lass: suicide, anal sex and folk dancing. Everything else, grasp to your tits and live it!”
He got up slowly and strolled over to the dying barbecue, absently stirring charcoal into a cloud. Then he placed hands in pockets and moved to the wicker fence, staring out at the newly leafed wood.
“Saw two badgers last week,” he said. “Farmer says they don’t have TB and he’d rather have them there, keeping infected badgers out.”
Still she forced herself to wait. The neighbour had finished his mowing. The only sounds left were that of bees in the tree above, feeding on the last of the plum blossom and of the same warm breeze rustling corn stalks. Then he ambled over and stopped in front of her.
“Yes,” she said with relief.
“All right, but there are conditions.” “What?” immediately suspicious.
“First, whatever you discover you mustn’t tell anyone, including your mother, without my permission.”
She could hold to that. Talking to her mother was hardly easy at the best of times.
He held her eyes for a while, then just walked into the house with that lazy, confident stroll he had. She gazed over the field, trying not to feel guilty about bullying him and for using his affection to her advantage. When he returned he was carrying a large, black binder.
“The second condition is that you can’t take this with you. You can only read it here.”
Bess glanced at the pages of A4 stretched tight, at least four centimetres thick, then up at John, his face uncharacteristically solemn.
“Well, in that case, you wanted to know about your grandfather, so read.”
He said it casually but she sensed the reverence with which he handed her the file. She pulled over the cover: Cold Eating, a novel by John Stafford. She knew all her uncle’s published writings, some of them almost by heart. This was not among them.
“When did you write this?”
“About 15 years ago. First thing I ever wrote and you’re only the second person I’ve shown it to.”
“Who was the first?”
“I’ll tell you later.”
She realised that, from the moment he’d handed over the binder, his eyes hadn’t left it and he was looking as if he wanted to snatch it back.
“I’m not sure I’ve done the right thing, Bess. You’re not ready for it.”
“Christ, John, how bad can it be?”
He lifted his gaze to her and she saw real anxiety for the first time.
Involuntarily she pulled the manuscript towards her and hugged it.
“I’m not giving it back.”
He continued to watch her for a while, before seeming to consciously pull his gaze away and nodding to himself.
“No,” he said. “And if you’re going to make a start I’ll put some coffee on.” “I want to start now,” and she turned the first page.