This is the opening of the first chapter of my latest Kendrick novel, Babylon Slide. The book involves a sniper killing, arms dealing, and Sumerian demons (hallucinated ones, I should point out – or are they?) I’m seeking beta readers before I submit to my audiobook publisher and seek an agent for this one.
by John Dodds
The brambles were especially aggressive that summer. At least in his parents’ garden. After an hour-long war of attrition Edward finally seemed to be getting the better of them. Until it became apparent that his frenzied cull with a pair of Black & Decker long arm secaturs was next to useless. No sooner would he cut through one thick stem, than others would rally to their fallen comrade’s aid with redoubled force. The fleece shirt dad had loaned him for the task was ineffectual; the thick thorns speared through it as though it were made of tissue paper.
Strong as he believed himself to be in some ways — he could bench press weights that would surprise a superficially more muscular man — he was no match for Scotland’s wilder flora. What made it somehow worse was that the invasion originated in the McPhersons’ garden. His parents made every effort to remain on good terms with their neighbours. Brambles could easily be a catalyst for antipathy. Dave and Sara Franklin being incomers – nobody used the word “sassenach” these days – were still trying to integrate with the community even yet, ten years after their had moved here from the Midlands.
Two stems had snaked around his right forearm after this last satisfying snip. Sharp pain flared through him, and he tried to wrench them free with a tug of his arm, twisting his body aside as he did so. It was a mistake. A big one, because the thorns ripped at his flesh with poker-hot intensity. He winced, cursed under his breath and gingerly unwound from his arm first one stem, then the other. In the process more thorns jabbed through the gardening gloves. He swore under his breath as the stings bit like a horde of angry hornets. He could visualise the tiny pearls of blood popping out of his fingertips and staining the lining of the gloves. Just brilliant!
A further half hour into his conflict with the russet coloured flails his mother’s voice called, “Lunch is ready, Edward.”
He turned and nodded and smiled through the pain.
Sara Franklin, a striking, slender blonde in her early 40s, waved a wooden spatula in seeming salute at her son’s heroic efforts.
He waved back and told her he would be at least another twenty minutes.
His mother nodded but with a slight air of peevishness. “Well, I’ll keep the soup hot for you.”
Irritated by her inability to say what was really on her mind, he dropped the secaturs on the ground and tugged off his gloves. “Fine. I know you don’t like your soup to overcook.”
It wasn’t so much that Sara Franklin was inflexible about timetables, but more that Edward naturally rebelled against anything vaguely authoritarian. While his parents could be spontaneous on occasion, it was usually within a framework – in other words, when they had nothing better to do, which wasn’t very often. At least that was how it seemed.
Shortly after, as he was bathing his arms in the blissfully warm water under the kitchen tap, his mother said from her station at the soup pot, “At least that’s one thing you can’t blame old Maggie for. The brambles, I mean.”
Watching rivulets of blood run down his forearm, Edward snorted disdainfully.
“Don’t be so sure, mum,” he said. “Mrs. Thatcher’s responsible for all the other crap in the country, so why not the bloody brambles as well?”
He felt, rather than saw, his mother tense a little and experienced again how she still saw him as a small child. Which always pissed him off.
After drying himself with a hand towel, he plonked down at the kitchen table, and took a swift pull of the beer that had been poured for him. Possibly by dad, as his mother didn’t approve of alcohol during daylight hours. Mind you that left plenty of scope, given the gloomy Celtic clouds that could obscure the sun in the blink of an eye.
Dave Franklin was hidden behind his Glasgow Herald. The broadsheet newspaper had the twin advantage of concealing his face, and letting him flick its pages as a way of expressing himself. To Edward’s surprise, though, on this occasion, dad slowly closed the pages, folded the paper in half and laid it on the table next to his side plate. He smoothed the paper abstractedly with his left hand while, with his right, he removed his wire-framed reading glasses.
Facially Edward resembled his father rather closely. Square jawed, hooded grey eyes, and thick black hair, which the son wore to shoulder length and the father had close-cropped. Just turned 45 this May, dad still retained a youthful appearance, though he complained once in a while about staring 50 in the face. Those hooded eyes lowered briefly then lifted to look directly into his son’s.
“So, Edward, when were you going to tell us?”
Edward felt uncomfortable and shifted on his chair. “About what?”
“About that,” said his mother, placing a bowl of soup in front of him and raising her chin at the envelope facedown by the cruet set at the table’s centre.
Edward began, “Where did you –?”
“Now then, son,” his father cautioned, “We weren’t spying on you, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
His mother sniffed as though to punctuate and reinforce the comment. Sitting on her own seat between the two men, she picked up her soupspoon and then laid it down again. She folded her hands on her lap, and said, “I was putting some of your clothes in the wash, that’s all. I mean, those jeans were ready to walk off on their own.”
So the fuck what, Edward thought, angered at being treated like a kid once again. He’d been wearing those same jeans for over a week and probably they were now musty. But it was his own smell, after all, which he was never especially conscious of, and frankly he didn’t much care for the clinical hyper cleanliness his suburban parents valued so highly.
“That,” he corrected her, slid the envelope toward himself, folded it and thrust it into the top pocket of his shirt, “was in my jacket.”
His father said, “That was filthy as well. Honest to God, Edward, if you can’t discipline yourself, how in Christ’s name will you tolerate someone else doing it?”
Edward threw his soupspoon back into the bowl. Splashes of pea and ham soup spattered the tablecloth and his mother leapt to her feet went to the sink and returned with a damp cloth to wipe it up.
“Leave it, Sara,” Dave Franklin warned. “We haven’t finished talking to Action Man here.”
Sara sank back onto her seat, but wrung the damp cloth unconsciously between her hands. When her husband was in full flight she tended to remain largely silent.
“I had this stupid idea, son, that you were determined to finish university.”
This patronising statement was quite true, or had been until January, when – well, he had no real desire to discuss that with his parents. Or anyone else, for that matter. But that winter had changed him. Changed him in a way he did not fully understand and when he recalled the incident a chill of fear ran through him. It was as though he were a lock and the tumblers had been turned with the wrong key, leaving some of them stuck in position thus preventing the door to the life he had originally planned for himself from opening.
Edward said, “I did, dad. Honestly. But…things changed. And, well, I just can’t do it. Not anymore.”
His mother reached out a hand as if to give him a comforting touch. But when she turned to her husband to seek his approval and didn’t get it, she withdrew it.
Dave Franklin sighed. “Well, I suppose a degree isn’t the be all and end all. But still…the army?”
Edward became conscious of the letter in his pocket as though it were made of stone instead of paper. A weight on his heart. He was fully aware, too, of the contradiction — a bookish, anti-authoritarian student, turning on their head the very things he normally stood for. Edward couldn’t have explained it.
Relenting at last, he withdrew the envelope from his pocket, took out the offending letter and unfolded it on the tabletop before offering it to his father.
“You’ve read it closely, I reckon, but here it is again. In case you want to check the fine print, like.”
Dave Franklin’s face clouded. Sara raised her eyebrows in warning, so he didn’t say the words that had clearly been forming. About how a son shouldn’t backtalk his father. How he and his wife had scrimped and saved to put him through university. And on, and on…
There followed several minutes of uncomfortable silence, during which Edward studied the letter. It sat there on the table between the family members like a gigantic, dying moth.
Presently, his mother said, “What I don’t get is, well, you’ve always gone your own way.”
“Just like I’m doing now,” he reminded her.
“Well,” she sniffed. “If that’s what you want to call it. But what I mean is that this isn’t like you.” She eyed the letter suspiciously, as though it might suddenly leap into the air of its own accord. “It’s not as though you’ve ever had any truck with convention or authority.”
“Practically a bloody hippy,” his father added under his breath.
That made Edward smile, though he lowered his face so as not to be too provocative. His decision was a reaction to something, a compulsively rash act, perhaps self-punishment. In any case, a new complexity in his life which he had no wish to analyse to closely, for fear of what he might find lying beneath that particular rock. Well, he’d made his decision and, as his dad was given to saying, “there’s an end to it.”
“Well, mum,” he said, “I might have changed. I mean, I’m twenty now. For all you know I might have a recessive gene that will turn me into a civil servant the day of my twenty first birthday.”
“Ha!” His father’s single, barked laugh was half theatrical, half spontaneous. Not that he would admit to being genuinely entertained by his son’s repartee. “A pinstriped suit would work better on you thank khaki, I reckon, though.”
Now that was genuinely funny. Edward’s father had never, ever subscribed to the idea that the pen was mightier than the sword. Indeed he had tried repeatedly, and with little success, to teach his then very young son to defend himself in a fist fight. But confronted by a bully, Edward’s fists tended to fail him and he would usually get a thick lip or a bloody nose as a badge of that failure. One more contrary reason, perhaps, why he had elected to give up his geography degree in favour of joining Her Majesty’s forces.
“Sorry, dad, but it’s for the best, I feel. I mean, it’s not as though I’ve just jumped in without looking….”
His father interjected, “But that’s exactly what you did do. And you felt guilty about it, which is why you kept this…news…from us.”
There was nothing Edward could say to that. It was the case that his papers had come through a fortnight ago, and the letter confirming the place and date that he should report for duty was something he had consciously held back until the moment felt right. Except the moment had never come. Given he was due back at university next week, he had certainly cut the whole business extremely fine.
Edward brushed his fingers through his hair, subconsciously buying time. But before he could speak, his father said, “You do know, don’t you, there’s another war just around the corner?”
The Falklands were still a source of pride in the Franklin household. The British people generally felt it had been the honourable thing to save the islanders from the dreaded “Argies.” Plus, because Margaret Bloody Thatcher had overridden the advice of Cabinet and by so doing gad symbolically aligned herself with Churchill. On the grounds, dad would argue, that “A war Prime Minister is a remembered Prime Minister,” regardless of their faults.
Edward held back from what he really wanted to say to that. Instead he answered, simply, “Yes, dad. I watch the news as well, you know.”
But not as much as you, Edward reflected. His father was a compulsive news watcher, and his obsession with it often overrode his wife’s viewing preferences. She would be in the middle of a favourite soap opera, for example, and he would switch channels “just in case” there were any news flashes. As for prime time, the six and nine o-clock news, forget it. The holy news media rode roughshod over everyone else’s wishes.
“Anyhow,” Edward announced. “I don’t want to talk about this any more. I’ll just finish up in the garden. Those brambles won’t burn themselves.”