It's my spot on The Salt Marsh blog tour today so below is the prologue from the novel by Clare Carson. Enjoy!
Monday 1 May 1978
Jim did his vanishing act the day of the spring fair. Sam was sitting in her room reading, the last of the apple blossom drifting past her window, Jim and the dog downstairs, her mother Liz and her sisters visiting the new baby of one of Liz’s old friends. Liz often went out on the days that Jim was at home. Her mother’s departure had been preceded by an argument. Sam had half heard Liz shouting, Jim shouting back, but hadn’t taken much notice because she had her head stuck in a book and, anyway, they always argued these days. Liz laughed, and that did catch Sam’s attention because there was something manic about the cackle. She clocked Liz yelling, ‘So if I want to know where you are, I’m supposed to call the fucking Home Secretary, am I?’ The front door crunched.
Sam was glad to hide in her room, curled up on her beanbag with her book. As she read, she was vaguely conscious of Jim clattering around in the kitchen below, tasked by Liz with cleaning the sink’s U bend while she was out. He was crap at DIY. Approached all domestic repairs with a rubber mallet, a bottle of Guinness and a stream of four-letter words – arse, piss, shit.
The fuck was followed by the noise of china shattering. Then silence. She lifted her head from the pages again, wondered whether she should go downstairs and check that he was OK but was distracted by the auburn flash of a fox, visible through her bedroom window as it slunk along the railway track at the bottom of the garden. There was a den in the brambles that smothered the embankments of the London commuter line. Rabies threat, according to John Craven’s Newsround. She focused on the gap in the thicket where the fox’s brush had disappeared; if she watched long enough, perhaps she would see the cubs emerging to play in the unexpected warmth of the spring sun. She waited. A train rattled past. No sign of the cubs. She was about to return to her book when the notes of Jim’s whistle floated on the air, growing louder as he clomped up the stairs; the tune familiar – ‘The Third Man Theme’. His good-mood whistle. She loved that film, The Third Man. So did Jim. They had watched it together and he had promised her that one day they would go to Vienna where the film was set and they could ride on the Reisenrad, the giant Ferris Wheel. The whistling ceased. Jim’s face appeared around her bedroom door and he smiled in his conspiratorial way.
He said, ‘I’m taking George for a walk.’ She decided it was probably best not to ask him about the sink. Or the broken crockery. He disappeared, then he obviously had an afterthought because his face reappeared around the door.
‘How old are you now?’
‘Oh. I suppose you’d better come with me then. I don’t want to get done for negligence.’
She sat in the back of the Cortina with the dog. George was large, black, part German shepherd, part hound from hell, and had failed the police sniffer dog test. Jim loved the dog, the only other male in the household. He shouldn’t have been allowed to become a family pet, but one of Jim’s mates in the Force had bent the rules, as coppers do. Jim worked for some strange part of the Force – half spy, half cop, secret missions away from home. God only knew what he was doing, Liz said. Well, God and the Home Secretary, apparently.
He swung the car around the roundabout, feeding the steering wheel through both hands, second exit along an oakshaded lane.
‘I’m in the dog house,’ Jim said.
‘Because I’ve got to go away again.’
‘Where are you going?’ Jim threw her a glance in the rearview mirror.
‘Over the hills and far away,’ he said. He always talked like that, in evasive riddles.
‘Will you come back?’ she asked. She watched his shoulders heave. ‘I’ve always come back before, haven’t I?’
‘Yes. I suppose so.’
He didn’t sound particularly convinced, but then he never did. She gazed out the car window; the hawthorn was flowering. The dog slobbered in her ear as they passed the golf course, forged deep into the criminal belt. That was what Jim called it. London’s dirty tidemark where the city’s mobsters washed up in their mock haciendas and kept a concrete mixer ready on the patio. He parked the Cortina by the graveyard at the edge of the village, the last stop on the bus route through the south London suburbs.
The dog leaped out as soon as Jim opened the car door, cocked his leg against a dumped mattress lolling on the pavement and bounded off. Jim strode after George, whistling the familiar tune as he went. She ran to catch up. Every now and then he stopped to identify a bird’s song. Blackbird. Mistle thrush. The harsh call of the jackdaw. She named the wildflowers: violets, white star wood anemones glinting in the undergrowth. George ran loops around her and Jim, herded them along the lane, growling impatiently when they lingered.
The lane levelled off, merged with a freshly tarmacked road, one side lined by ranks of conifers, the occasional glimpse of red bricks visible through the trunks. Retirement community for the south London mob, Jim said. Cash down, he added. A break in the pine barricade revealed a wooden-framed Larsen trap with a bedraggled crow imprisoned behind the chicken wire, a decoy, a call-bird waiting for a mate to fall through the false floor of the death box.
‘God, they’re breeding game birds,’ Jim said. ‘A predilection for guns and shooting – funny how much bank robbers and the upper classes have in common.’
He sneered. ‘Pheasant killers. They trap the crows to stop them raiding the pheasants’ nests and when the chicks have grown and can fly, they shoot them.’
Sam wanted to release the crow; the bird looked so miserable, huddled in a far corner of the trap. Jim told her to leave it – he didn’t want to attract attention. Not in those parts. Best put George on the lead, he added. He whistled; the dog trotted up meekly.
‘We’ve almost done the circuit anyway,’ he said. He fought through a hole in the hedgerow and strode diagonally across a muddy field, away from the gangsters’ villas. Jim hated retracing his steps. He was always determined to walk in a circle even if it meant clambering over barbed-wire fences and squelching through ditches. She trailed behind.
‘Look.’ He pointed at a grey church spire poking above a distant canopy of trees. ‘We’re almost back.’
They reached the Cortina eventually, jammed in now by a Fiat estate, a Mini and a line of motorbikes – Harleys and a couple of Kawasakis.
‘Lot of cars here,’ Jim said. ‘I wonder what’s going on.’
Sam spotted a poster pinned to an oak. ‘There’s a May Day fair on in the playing fields. Fun stalls and exhilarating rides it says. Maybe there’s a big wheel. Can we go and look?’
‘We might as well; there’s nothing much else to do today.’
That must have been what everybody else thought too. George strained at his lead, unnerved by the thickening crowds – leather-jacketed bikers swinging dog chains, scabby punks with glue-sniffer eyes and red-faced golfers in plaid trousers shouting blahdy typical at each other. The periphery always attracted an odd mix of people. Past the lychgate, the chippy, the Green Man, the sweet smell of candyfloss and hotdogs hit her before they reached the fenced fields where the locals played in Sunday leagues. The fair was a mishmash, an odd mix of funfair and village fete. A couple of crapola rides – a carousel and a waltzer – a collection of throw the ping-pong ball into the bowl to win a goldfish stalls with striped awnings and lightbulb fringes and a line of trestle-tables displaying less gaudy fete-type wares.
‘No big wheel,’ she said.
Jim scoffed. ‘That’s not going to satisfy the punters. They’ve advertised excitement and it looks to me as if they’ve persuaded the lads from Peter Pan’s Pool to drag their spare equipment over and set up a couple of dodgy carousels.’ Sam knew all about Peter Pan’s Pool, a small but permanent fairground in Catford – she had been taken there by her sisters. She hadn’t been impressed by the dilapidated dodgems and the goldtoothed wandering fair-hands. Her sisters liked it there. A passing phase, according to Liz. Jim was right, she reckoned, as she watched the cranky waltzer jerking into life, this May Day fair was not going to please anybody who had come in search of excitement.
‘Not sure Morris dancers will help,’ Jim said.
He cocked his head towards a roped-off square between the funfair attempt and the trestle-table stalls. The bearded Morris dancers were loitering near the Maypole. Some girls in flimsy dresses were practising their dance routine and a bunch of adults decked out in green capes, tunics and face paint were fussing with the Maypole’s limp ribbons.
‘What do you think all those people in green are doing?’ Sam asked.
‘Probably some hippy Beltane nonsense.’
‘Old pagan celebration to mark the start of summer.’
Jim had these odd pools of esoteric knowledge.
‘What does Beltane mean?’
‘Bright fire. Shepherds used to light two fires and pass between them with their flocks. A sort of blessing. Protection for the yearling lambs when they moved from the uplands of the Kentish Weald to the lowland marshes.’
The waltzer was blaring ‘You Sexy Thing’.
Jim scanned the fairground. ‘Bet the crow-men are here somewhere.’
‘Who are the crow-men?’ ‘Dancers from the darkness. Men in black. Birds of death. They always turn up in these parts, looking for trouble. Oh well. At least there’s something to drink.’ He nodded at a sagging white marquee with a beer tent sign above its open flaps. ‘Here, you take George. I could do with a beer. Won’t be long.’
He handed her the lead and the dog plonked himself on her shoes, pinioned her to the ground. She couldn’t be bothered to shift the beast, stood with numbing toes and watched the girls in floaty dresses rehearsing. They made her squirm. She would never wear a dress like that; never wear a dress at all in fact if she could help it. She wore trousers.
Jim emerged from the tent with a bottle in his hand.
‘OK, where next?’ he said as he approached.
She noticed his face cloud, but she ignored his changing expression – she was used to his mercurial temperament – and surveyed the trestle-tables furthest away from the dancing girls – a tombola, jam and cakes, bric-a-brac. She turned to tell Jim she wanted to try her luck with the tombola. He wasn’t there. In the twenty seconds she had been looking away, he had disappeared. She must be mistaken. She gripped George’s lead and cast her eyes around, certain he was somewhere nearby. He wasn’t. Her stomach tightened. She looked again, scoured the cape wearers, bikers, golfers, Bromley Contingent safetypin punks, everybody the worse for wear. No trace of Jim. Where was he? Perhaps he had dropped something in the beer tent and gone back to look for it. She yanked George’s lead, stepped over to the marquee, peered inside. She couldn’t see him. She retreated to the spot where she had been standing when Jim disappeared. Still no sign of him. She had a sick feeling in her gut. She had to think. He had done this before, the disappearing act. He sometimes vanished when he spotted somebody from his shadow life because he was worried about being seen with his family, blowing his cover and jeopardizing the safety of his wife and kids. So he would melt away, leave them to carry on as if nothing had happened. But every other time he had vanished, she had been with Liz or one of her sisters. And now she was alone. Or, at least, alone with the dog. Had he seen somebody dangerous who knew him? She glanced nervously around the fairground, searching the crowd not for Jim this time but anybody who looked shifty. Everybody seemed sinister right then, red faces leering, bellowing voices, beer-bellied sweaty men. She was alone in the jostle, enclosed yet exposed, sensing danger all around but unable to pinpoint its exact location. She was starting to panic. Her breath was coming in short gasps, and when she tried to catch it she couldn’t, she only made the lack of oxygen worse.
She squatted beside George, put her arm around his neck for comfort. The dog panted too, meaty breath stinking in her nostrils. ‘What shall we do?’ she asked. The dog whimpered. Her eyes were welling. She was confused. Should she wait for her father to reappear or was it safer to move? She couldn’t call her mum from a phone box because Liz would still be at her friend’s house and she didn’t know the number. Should she walk home? It was about five miles along a main road. Perhaps it was better to catch a bus – she had enough change in her pocket. She wavered. The waltzer switched to ‘That’s the Way I Like It’. She decided to do a circuit of the fairground to see if she could find Jim.
She picked her way across the tangle of waltzer cables, bypassed the Maypole, peering into the crowds. No joy. She headed toward the trestle-table stalls. There were fewer people here, but still no sign of Jim. She skirted the tombola, came to a stall piled with cellophane bags that she thought contained sweets until she saw the Herbal Remedies sign taped to the table top. The woman with dyed green hair sitting behind the table waved one of the bags at Sam.
‘Here, take it. It’s willow bark. Bitter withy.’
Sam didn’t want to stop, but she was too polite to ignore the stallholder so she took the packet, eyed its brown fragments.
‘The weeping willow, or withy as it used to be called, is the tree of death and grief. It’s cursed. The bitter withy is the only tree to perish from the inside out, heart first.’
Sam shuffled awkwardly.
‘According to Culpeper,’ the woman continued, ‘the bark can be used to stop bleeding, and when mixed with vinegar it takes away warts.’ Sam was wondering how she could end the conversation when she noticed the woman’s face harden, her mouth pulled taut and thin. ‘Don’t look now, but there is a man standing behind us by the Candy Man Can candyfloss stall and he’s staring at you.’
Sam twisted round, assuming it must be Jim, but was caught by the gaze of a stranger, colourless eyes locking hers. She tried to look away, frightened by the intensity of the man’s icy stare, but could only shift her gaze down and found herself transfixed by a crescent-moon scar on his cheekbone.
The woman’s voice pulled her back. ‘Where are your parents anyway?’
‘I came here with my dad, but he’s disappeared.’
‘He went off somewhere.’ Her neck prickled. She wondered whether she should explain the problem – Jim’s vanishing act possibly to avoid the scar-faced man – but her family had a strict code; she should be careful what she said about her father. Talking was dangerous. Anyway, she wasn’t sure what she thought of this woman. The stallholder leaned forwards. Sam caught a whiff of patchouli oil and tobacco.
‘Is your dad in the beer tent?’
The woman was scrutinizing her face, making her feel self-conscious.
‘Are you OK?’
Sam hesitated. ‘I’m fine.’
The stallholder was still staring at her face. ‘You’ve got a birthmark on your cheek.’
Sam lifted her hand without thinking to the lumpy brown splodge shaped like a cat’s head. She tried to keep it covered with her hair, especially when she was at school, because her classmates called her bogey face when it was visible.
‘Couple of hundred years ago, people would have thought you were a witch if they saw that mark.’
Sam laughed nervously. She couldn’t tell whether the woman was joking.
‘Witch isn’t necessarily an insult. It was often clever women, cunning folk, who knew about herbs and plants who were accused of witchcraft.’
The stallholder waved her hand across her cellophane packets, gave Sam a meaningful nod. Sam was desperate to escape now, find her father. She checked over her shoulder; a small queue had formed in front of the candyfloss stall, the flustered black-aproned stallholder was bent over the silver drum, whirring sticks around to collect the sugar wisps. The scarfaced man was nowhere in sight. She clocked the crowds surging towards the roped area to watch the girls prancing around the Maypole, ‘Jake the Peg’ pumping through the tannoy. The leering carousel horses were chasing round and round. She had a sudden idea about where Jim might have gone: if he was trying to avoid being seen by somebody – the man with the scar – he could have slipped away and walked back to the Cortina. It was the one place where he knew Sam might look for him.
‘I’d better go and see if I can find my dad in the beer tent,’ Sam said. She was still holding the cellophane packet. She didn’t want it, but she thought it would be less hassle to pay for it than to hand it back. ‘How much is the willow bark?’
‘Take it. It’s yours for nothing.’
Sam pulled George’s lead and made her way through the jostle around the roped-off area. A policeman was jigging along with the girls in floaty dresses; the lairy bystanders egged him on – guffawing, cameras snapping. The Morris dancers were warming up their instruments – a violin, an accordion, a penny whistle and drum. The green-cape wearers were huddled in a corner behind the Maypole. One of them lit a bulrush torch, leaned back as it ignited, jabbed the burning wand down his throat and exhaled a leaping flame. Petrol fumes filled the air. The dancing girls shied away from the fire-eater, startled.
The policeman stopped being jolly, shouted, ‘Oi. Enough of that.’
The fire-eater shouted back, ‘Fuck off. I’ll do what I want. It’s a free country.’
‘This is my fucking patch. You do what I say here.’ The fire-eater’s mates jeered, closed ranks. The audience surged, eager for a fight, bored with the waltzer, little girls and Maypole dancing. Sam pressed against the flow, dragging George. As she reached the beer tent, a bunch of stick-wielding men with blackened faces burst out through the open flap – ragged black cloaks flapping from their shoulders and top hats decorated with pheasant feathers. Crow-men, she realized with alarm, dancers from the darkness, birds of death. The crowmen hurtled into the crowd, barged over to the Maypole. Sam heard a shout behind – ‘let’s get ‘em’ – quickened her pace and headed to the gate, George straining on the lead. She had almost reached the exit when a man clutching a stick of candyfloss stepped into their path. He turned to face her and she saw his colourless eyes, the scar. She gasped, inhaled the sickly sweet smell of spun sugar. Her gut dropped, her legs tensed for flight, certain now this was the man Jim had been trying to avoid. What was he? A murderer? A terrorist? He smiled.
‘Your dad gave me a message for you,’ he said.
His words caught her by surprise – his voice calm and reasonable. She edged back. Noticed a badge pinned to his windcheater, a peace symbol. CND. She stalled. Her aunt was in CND, she was always going on about Aldermaston, the dangers of nuclear proliferation. She liked her aunt. Harmless commie, according to Jim. Could this man be dangerous if he was wearing a peace badge? Maybe he wasn’t so bad after all. Maybe he wasn’t the person who had prompted Jim to disappear, perhaps he was a friend of her father’s. Up close he seemed quite normal. Tall, not broad. Mousey hair. Anorak and jeans. His stare made her nervous, and the scythe-shaped scar was scary, but she had a marked cheek too and the bogeyface comments upset her. It was wrong to judge people by their looks.
He said, ‘Your dad asked me to keep an eye on you and make sure you didn’t leave the fair until he got back.’
She couldn’t work it out. If Jim wanted to give her a message why didn’t he just say something to her before he vanished? Why did he ask this man to tell her? But what if he was telling the truth? Jim would be angry if she didn’t wait for him. Maybe it was sensible to wait.
‘Do you know how long he will be?’ she asked.
‘Not long. Why don’t you stay here with me? Here,’ he pushed the candyfloss stick he was holding at her, ‘have this. Your dad told me to buy you a treat while he was gone.’
The candyfloss did it. Instant reaction. There was no way Jim would have told some strange man to buy her a treat, he wasn’t like that, he knew she would never accept candyfloss from a stranger. It was totally wrong. The scar-faced man was creepy. She ran. The man reached out to grab her as she passed, dropped the candyfloss on the ground.
He lurched at her. She dodged him, broke into a gallop. George was faster, overtook her, pelted down the road, towing her behind, her heart hammering.
The man shouted, ‘Tell your dad he should take more care of you, otherwise something nasty could happen.’
They reached the Cortina. Jim was there, waiting in the driver’s seat. He saw her coming, opened the door for her. She clambered in with George; the dog’s rank smell filled the car. Jim didn’t say a word, turned the ignition, accelerator, swerve. Along the bypass, white gypsy caravans huddled on the verge, tatty ponies tethered to the fence. She was still clutching the gift from the green-haired lady.
‘What’ve you got in that plastic bag?’ Jim asked, looking in the rearview mirror.
‘Makes a change from goldfish, I suppose.’
He was trying to be jolly. Pretend nothing had happened.
She said, ‘Why did you leave me?’
He shifted on his seat. ‘I had to. I thought you would know I had gone back to the car. And you had George with you.’
The dog stretched his paws across her legs. ‘I worked it out in the end,’ she said. ‘I was scared.’
He sniffed. ‘You were safer without me.’
He said it brusquely. She went red, the tears of pent-up fear gathering. She blinked them back because crying always irritated her father, leaned her head against the side window. Watched the world go by. Eventually she sat upright again and said, ‘A man tried to stop me leaving.’
She noticed the veins on the back of his hand as he gripped the gear stick.
‘He was standing by the candyfloss machine and staring at me when I was looking for you. Then he tried to stop me when I was leaving and said you’d asked him to tell me to wait at the fair.’
‘What did he look like?’
‘He had a scar on his cheek.’
‘Bastard. Fucking bastard.’
Jim put his foot on the accelerator.
‘I hope you didn’t say anything to him.’
‘Well, I did because I thought he knew you and he looked normal – apart from his eyes and the scar – and he was wearing a peace badge, you know, like the one Aunty Hazel wears.’
Jim snorted, shook his head. ‘A badge doesn’t mean anything. Appearances can be deceptive. People aren’t always what they seem. You should know that by now. Anybody can pick up a badge and wear it.’
He winced when he said that; she wasn’t sure why. She felt upset because it wasn’t her fault anyway. It was Jim’s. Why was he telling her off?
‘He tried to give me a stick of candyfloss.’
‘He tried to give me a stick of candyfloss. That’s when I knew he was a weirdo.’
‘A stick of bloody candyfloss? Jesus fucking wept. What was he playing at?’
He shook his head, mumbled to himself. ‘Talk about going for the soft target. A kid. What did he think he’d get from a kid? Wanker. Well, I suppose you don’t always know what you know.’
She had no idea what he was going on about. You don’t always know what you know. She turned the words over in her mind, thought about the candyfloss, the colourless eyes, the scar face, the tightness in her stomach. She sang to herself while she was thinking, not conscious of what she was singing. ‘The Candy Man Can’. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
‘Will you stop singing that bloody song,’ Jim said.
They drove on in silence, circled the roundabout, past the skinheads hanging out at the bus stop, the fairy-light-bedecked bungalow where the tattooed biker lived with his ageing mother, turned into their street. Jim pulled up, hair plastered to the sweat of his forehead, yanked the handbrake on.
She said, ‘He told me to tell you that you should take more care of me, otherwise something nasty could happen.’
‘Fuck him,’ Jim shouted. ‘Fuck him.’ He opened the car door. ‘There isn’t a fucking handbook. I have to make it up as I go along. I get it wrong sometimes. Maybe this time I got it wrong.’
She wasn’t sure whether he was talking to her or to himself. He got out of the car, slammed the door. She followed with the dog. He walked up the front steps of their house. At the top he stopped, turned.
He said, ‘He’s an evil bastard. He might look normal but he’s a fucking evil bastard.’ He paused, then he said, ‘He is a candy man, that’s exactly what he is. A candy man spinning his sickly deceits. Using kids, for fuck’s sake. You’d better remember his face. If you see him again, don’t think twice. Run.’
Jim went inside, left the front door open, left her standing on the pavement. She didn’t want to remember the candy man’s face, the icy eyes, the scythe-shaped scar. She wanted to forget him, bury it. Along with all the other things it was dangerous to remember about her father. A gust of wind carried a swirl of apple blossom along the road. She stretched, caught a white petal as the mini tornado passed, squished it in her fist, released the intense perfume of the blossom, sweet like candyfloss. The scent made her retch.