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Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies

LIST PRICE $18.99

About The Book

Longlisted for the International Booker Prize

This lyrical debut novel is at once a passionate coming-of-age story, a meditation on illness and death, and a kaleidoscopic journey through one woman’s life—told in part by the malevolent voice of her disease.

Lia, her husband Harry, and their beloved daughter, Iris, are a precisely balanced family of three. With Iris struggling to navigate the social tightrope of early adolescence, their tender home is a much-needed refuge. But when a sudden diagnosis threatens to derail each of their lives, the secrets of Lia’s past come rushing into the present, and the world around them begins to transform.

Deftly guided through time, we discover the people who shaped Lia’s youth; from her deeply religious mother to her troubled first love. In turn, each will take their place in the shifting landscape of Lia’s body; at the center of which dances a gleeful narrator, learning her life from the inside, growing more emboldened by the day.

Pivoting between the domestic and the epic, the comic and the heart-breaking, this astonishing novel unearths the darkness and levity of one woman’s life to symphonic effect.

Excerpt

Chapter One one I
I, itch of ink, think of thing, plucked open at her start; no bigger than a capillary, no wiser than a cantaloupe, and quite optimistic about what my life would come to look like. I have since ached along her edges. Delighting in my bare-feet-floorboard-creeps across from where she once would feed, down to where her body brews, I have sampled, splintered, leaked and chewed through tissue, nook, bone, crease and node so much, so well, so tough, now, that the place feels like my own.

It is, perhaps, inevitable that after all this time, I have come to feel a little dissatisfied with the fact of my existence. This is not easy to admit. I suppose one can only be a disaster tourist for so long before the cruel old ennui starts to set in. But the Greeks said that in the beginning, there was boredom. The gods moulded mankind from its black, lifeless crust and this is, of course, encouraging.

Today I might trace the rungs of her larynx, or tap at her trachea like the bones of a xylophone, or cook up or undo some great horrors of my own because here is the thing about bodies: they are impossibly easy to prowl, without anyone suspecting a thing.

Until, of course, they do. And then, of course,

they aren’t.
The Beginning of the End
Lia remembered two things about the beginning of the end.

The first: the time it took the traffic lights to change.

The second: the fact that nobody died.

She was one crossing away from the place she needed to be, the surging rhythm of the city in her pulse, the day tripping quick towards rush hour. Her senses felt unusually alert. Nicked wide open by nerves, perhaps. It was nice. A nice change. To feel this exposed, this alive, whilst standing at a red light waiting for the world to resume itself.

A man in a suit that was too small for him sighed heavily and hailed a taxi.

Two women spoke loudly on their phones, slices of their conversation burying themselves into the back of her neck; I told him I said you can’t help how you feel. Booked the two thirty slot tomorrow, there’s some leftover casserole in the fridge you can microwave. No cash, I’m afraid. Won’t be late. God, I always feel so bad. Remember to feed the cat.

Lia pinched the velvet of her earlobe and thought about tragedy.

Which poet was it that said an abiding sense of tragedy

can sustain a man through temporary periods of joy?

Which philosopher was it that said

all tragedies begin with

an admirable quiet?

Today had been full of clamour.

Everyone seemed seconds away from catastrophe.

The belt of a woman’s coat bounced against her bicycle spokes. Cycling accidents were rising at a steady rate of 15 per cent each year. More than 4,500 resulting in death or serious injury, yesterday’s newspaper had read. The city just keeps culling, there is grief on every street, Lia thought, as the plump belly of a toddler emerged at an open window and her eyes flicked down the floors below, counting, jaw tight, as the toddler leant its milk-white head out in delight, resting its tiny fingers on the ledge.

Four floors. The fall was four floors down.

Fluorine is pale yellow, chlorine is yellow-green, and bromine is red-brown.

A girl in a blue school uniform began lecturing her friend loudly on the subject of elements.

The halogens get darker as you go down, see.

Lia noticed the girl had thick straight lashes that interlaced as she blinked and a profile of rare, youthful prettiness, the kind that stood out amongst the mass of waiting faces, growing impatient at the crossing, and it was always so hard, she thought – so hard not to get distracted by beautiful things.

Back at the window, the toddler had disappeared. The window had been shut. This was, of course, a relief.

She took a deep, heavy breath in through her nose, concentrating on the stretch of her ribs, the widening of her chest, and held it. Trapped it there. The crackling warmth of petrol air. It had been two years since she’d walked these streets. Crossed this crossing. Two years since she’d sat staring at the scan of her body and brain pinned up against the light, pointing to the dark patch swimming about the centre. That’s the corpus callosum, the doctor had said. Nothing to worry about (she let the long, lovely breath rush through her lips) just the thick nerve tract connecting one hemisphere to the other.

A gap in the traffic had emerged. A clear path, connecting one side of the road to the other. The lights still hadn’t changed. A man with matte skin made a break for it, which prompted the girl in the blue school uniform to dart out into the road too, pulling her friend behind her. It was then that Lia’s eyes latched to the car, turning the corner, coming quickly through the afternoon. She saw the collision before it happened, felt the possibility of it collapse in on her lungs the way rain crescendos into something more than rain.

A throat-screech brake. Delayed smack of machine impact. The buckle of skinny knees as the girl’s body hit the concrete. Lia felt time fold, the seconds doubling over. Oh my God, a telephone voice rasped loudly by her ear, but before she could get a closer look, the scene had flooded with people, all gnawing, clawing away at the prospect of a massacre, quick as starving rats to sudden crumbs.

Lia wanted to be sick.

The girl was dead. She knew it. She could feel it; the new chill in the air, the slowing of the clouds, the dizzying shift of atmosphere when tragedy drops into an ordinary day like this. The crowd seemed to be multiplying and all Lia could think was –

she would never get to tell her parents about the sort of day she’d just had. She would never take a chemistry exam or fall in love or know what a particularly nasty UTI feels like; she would never go to Manchester to study medicine, never become a medic or get to save any lives, and perhaps there would be other people that would die in years to come because of this very moment, because a man with matte skin had made a break for it and a young girl in a blue school uniform who knew things about elements had darted out into a road too soon, and Lia had watched all the glittering possibilities of her life flare up and flicker out, just like that.

She imagined the horror of walking over, leaning down with the rest of the rats, pushing the girl’s hair gently off her face, to find that it was Iris, her Iris, her eyes stripped clean of their life.

A perfectly functioning body! the doctor had said. And a happy, healthy brain!

As if there really was such a thing.

The crowd had parted a little, so that Lia could finally get a glimpse of the girl lifting to her feet, just as Iris would at three or four, after having taken a tumble. I’m fine, she was saying, as she brushed herself down, quite unharmed. Someone offered to examine her knees. I’m fine, she said again, only louder and harder, her face flushed pink from the shock.

Lia couldn’t believe it. It was, of course, a relief. But also –

the slightest bit disappointing.

The girl’s friend led her back to the safety of the pavement, where they both began to laugh, quite hysterically, the terrible sound churning away into the violent city. The spectators dispersed quickly, clumsily, back to their journeys, ashamed of their bloody appetite, and Lia felt the edges of the place cool and settle, her mind collecting up all that had briefly unravelled as the traffic lights went from chlorine to fluorine to bright bromine red, as the world shifted down

three octaves

too late.

By the time she had got to the other side of the road, she had landed on

Yeats.

The poet was Yeats.

She still couldn’t remember the philosopher.

Her eyes remained locked to the pavement until she reached the hospital.

The doctor said it was bad news.

It was back.

She couldn’t hear the rest.

The room had emptied of all sound.

There was only the chilling giggle of the girl who hadn’t died. So faint it was barely audible at first, but as it grew clearer and closer the voice was joined by other voices, those of London’s lucky inhabitants who had all narrowly missed their endings, and like wave strengthening upon wave their lament bounced between the brick and glass of the city before rushing in, at last, through the crack in the hospital window, filling up every inch of the room:

It was you, Lia.

Not us.

You.
They
They, seeds of her hope, choir of her heart, now they are all rustling awake.

They, with their histories, plots, songs and remedies, stretch out from the mist-thick blanket of sleep, as word of my little disfigurement carries, like a gut-wind carves and cleanses a day, and

I must admit to feeling a little pleased.

You cannot polish a diamond without a bit of friction, after all, and it is beautiful, really, the way they yawn and twitch, shudder, click, sniff, wet and stiff as dogs smelling ghosts,

ready to try and snuff me right out.
How
Feeling brews itself in different locations, depending on the body. A man’s most honest impulses may begin in his hands or his heart, his toes, throat, fingers or thighs. Lia felt most things first in her stomach.

An example: when she first felt love she was sick everywhere.

It had been the day the stranger had washed her feet. The sensation of something buried very deep had gone charging up through her lining, and she had found herself churning out the contents of her stomach over his large nimble fingers, between her own small toes. He hadn’t flinched or grimaced, but had simply dipped his hands back into the bucket of water and sponged off the sick from her feet. She had wiped the bile from her chin, raised herself from the chair and dripped up the stairs to her bedroom, rubbing her stomach beneath the thin cotton of her shirt and wondering how he had done it. Made her feel as if her body’s purging was perfectly normal, like there was nothing particularly disgusting or even interesting about it, and she had felt very seen and yet very small all at once.

It was no surprise, then, that when the doctor announced the cancer had spread, Lia felt a stirring in her stomach. This deep-vowelled how? like a wolf’s cry. The doctor searched her eyes sadly and nodded, ever so slightly, as if he were agreeing with the churning stomach sound, how how howing away at the body’s betrayal.

On the way home, she vomited into the bin outside the station. Thick, pink clumps and chunks of breakfast and lunch, sour and fizzing in phlegm. And what if that could be it, she thought. If one could just throw tumours up, find them like coins in mud, polish and frame them next to the art in the kitchen. Turn them into fridge magnets with the machine that Iris had got last Christmas.

Iris. Iris. How would she tell her?

The streets had become remarkably quiet.

At home, Lia climbed to the safety of the fifth stair, where no notable events ever took place, and sat there a while, hugging her knees. She wished she had let Harry come with her. He would be waiting for the call. The only thing worse than hearing the news was having to tell it. She felt quietly grateful not to have to witness the dulling of his eyes, the panic sinking in his cheeks.

The phone barely rang twice before he answered.

Yes?

His voice was heavy with hope.

It’s back.

A silence.

Fuck.

Another, longer silence. The squeak of Lia’s hot palms clutching the banister tightly.

Fuck indeed.

Harry was the most capable person Lia had ever met. It was hard to know what to make of pure human goodness like his, for her life had been so littered with people who bounced effortlessly between extremes, and she had come to expect a certain degree of difficulty.

He demanded nothing of her. He had this gentle, scrappy energy and a way of smiling that was like watching a parachute open, and though he believed himself to be a man of middling talent, rarely the main event, but the sort of person that got you there and back safely, he was quietly remarkable, and the best sort of partner Lia could have ever hoped for.

We’ll fight this, Harry said suddenly, sounding quite unlike himself, we’ve done it before and we’ll do it again.

Statements like these never sat well in his voice. He thought too deeply for such certainty, observed the world too rigorously. Lia tried not to let it frustrate her.

Harry.

Yes?

Can you pick up a pudding? Something cheap and rich and fluffy.

He laughed lightly.

The most disgusting one I can find, he said, sounding much more like himself.

Lia sat on the end of her bed and drew out the shape of his language; the hills, the bends, the steady dips of it:



The battle of each word against the circumstance of it:



So how would the fight begin? Would there be some warning, some sign that it had started? A horn? A quaking-gallop-humdrum on the horizon,

flags in the wind?

In the quiet of their bedroom, she looked for flags.

Her coat hung limply on the corner of the door like some stuffed and sorry scarecrow, skewered deep into its sacred patch of land, waving away the world.

Iris would be back soon. Today had been her first day at secondary school. She had left that morning as confident as ever in her new school uniform; shirt, skirt, hands and feet far too big for the rest of her tiny frame, and though Lia had been so impressed, the sight of her leaving had felt like the end of something. As if there was a chance she might never come back.

Lia went down to open the front door, to wait for her on the doorstep, peeling off her shoes and socks to feel the shock of cold stone against bare soles. She looked

out and

up and thought,

Me –

I am not battling. I am as still and as constant as September sky,

selfish and sympathetic in equal measure.

Minutes later, Iris came bounding down the road with the world on her back, her cheeks flushed with the excitement of the day.

What are you doing waiting there for? she said, leaping into Lia’s arms, and Lia felt the street hold its breath, the swelling of its surfaces, the gradual muffle of its parking cars and sycamores.

How was it?

Oh, you know. As I expected.

Iris shrugged like these changes were the easiest things. The street exhaled. Lia watched her half skip through the hallway, the mouth of the house, before disappearing around a corner, down the throat, and felt drenched with the exhaustion of loving someone as much as she did in that moment.

In the kitchen, they peeled vegetables. Iris spoke animatedly about her day, picking at food in the fridge, the frost of her laugh billowing out into its stark electric light. Perhaps, Lia thought, if she were the one doing the fighting, they would all be fine.

We have our own lockers, which is nice. The playground is so big and so concrete; there are so many rooms and corridors I got lost, a few times. Everyone was shy. Made a few friends. The chairs were the strangest part.

The chairs?

When I sit on the chairs

my feet don’t quite

reach the floor.

Outside the house, Harry watched Lia and Iris passing peacefully through the frame of the front window, eyes sore and glassy. His afternoon had developed this close, narrow quality, so that from the moment he had left the university, he had felt as if he were walking down a long, straight corridor, and there had been no corners or buses or stairs or pauses, as if London herself were helping him home. Home. Now that he was here, he felt quite unable to move a step further.

Lia must have said something that Iris hadn’t liked, because she was scowling down at chopped onions, or aubergine, he could not tell. He adored Iris’s scowls; the total transformation of her face, the way her forehead mottled and her eyes disappeared under the deep shadow of her brows. Harry rubbed the sponge of his eyeballs harder than he needed to, circling them around their sockets. Behind him – he felt a weight, shifting. Poised. He snapped his head around to the rows of suburban houses, squinting into the evening shadows.

When Lia had first been diagnosed, all those years ago, he often had to remind himself there was nothing coming for them. Nothing watching them or closing in, no beast readying to rip through their street. And yet still he imagined stepping inside the house and sealing the windows over with cement. Laying great concrete blocks in front of the doors to stop the world from getting in. The pointed nose of a fox poked out from behind the neighbour’s red Ford Focus. It padded, soft-footed, onto the pavement, barely acknowledging him. Harry took a breath and pushed his keys into the lock, wondering when the foxes had grown so confident, and which of the three cheap rich fluffy puddings he had picked would end up being the right one.

In bed that night, stuffed on one third of each pudding, Harry stroked the milky middle of Lia’s arm, the bit that stayed the same colour and texture no matter how old she got. Lia could feel his fear through his fingertips, the caution and worry in his touch as he mumbled more battle phrases and she watched them charge him, accidentally, into sleep. With the weight of her body deepening into the mattress and an acute awareness of her own heartbeat thrumming under her chest, Lia reached out for the pen next to her bed. She opened the folds of her notebook and there, on her side, with her cheek pressed to the pillow and her hand quivering out in front of her, she wrote until she slept:


Stomach
Cloaked in my most quiet disguise, with my many eyes, I watch them.

Hollow,

hidden,

smug as a god.

There will be family here. Friends new and old. Preserved. Untold. There will be half-drawn thoughts and dream-props and fragments of people she has passed in shops and they are all currently following the Smell of Starts to Stomach, where her instinct brews and wafts its stench.

Of course, it’s hard to get a real sense of anyone yet with so much quaking-gallop-humdrum noise. The horns. Flags. All the vanilla treacle chocolate cheesecake tart sponge but

I will do my best.

It might take them a while to acclimatize. I want to tell them to pinch their smudged noses, feel the pressure in their blotched ears swell and burst, let their eyes adjust to the colour of fight, the fragment vernacular of breath and nerve and strips of limb, arteriole streams cuts ducts pipes and dreams.

(I don’t)

I want to tease them; tell them to take it in, take their time, take it from me;

the hours are elastic here; they taunt, flex, bend and fold.

(I don’t)

I want to shout and sing and scream fierce as a stinging salt wind;

Welcome! Benvenuti! Herzlich Willkommen! Bienvenue!

Leave your coats at the door, hats on the stands, shoes in the hall.

My God, you are all lucky to be here!
Morning
Lia woke up next to a large black hole. The ink from the ballpoint had leaked slowly through the night into her sheets. She peeled out of bed and stood to stare at herself in the full-length mirror. Looking back was a paper person covered in print; she had rolled on her notebook, pressed her arm in it, her face.

Down at breakfast Iris announced,

When we grow up we should get matching tattoos.

Iris was in the habit of using ‘we’ a lot.

You think?

Yes.

On our elbows, just like that.

She pointed to a half-scrubbed ‘surv’ ‘ive’.

Lia twisted her arm round to inspect it further. Her elbows were dry, and the ink had buried itself into deep patterned lines.

It would probably be quite hard to tattoo an elbow.

Well, on yours yes because it’s so scaly and saggy.

Lia wanted to laugh but found that she couldn’t.

Iris knew she’d been cruel. She’d tried to be funny, but it had come out cruel. She felt overwhelmingly annoyed with herself. It was always so hard to come back from, so hard to warm the cool atmosphere that came rippling through the kitchen after one of her careless comments.

She dipped her head down and kissed Lia’s elbow.

It’s my favourite elbow ever, she said, very quietly, and Lia wished she hadn’t, for the only thing that made her stomach ache more than the ease of Iris’s brutality was her stunning self-awareness. At twelve years old, she was, perhaps, the wisest person

Lia had ever known.

Go and brush your teeth, she said, only her voice crumbled a little at the brush, so that she sounded very feeble. It had never come naturally to her. Motherhood. This act of pulling days out from one’s sleeve. But she tried, most mornings, to find little delights where her own mother had failed to look. To never let Iris feel the joyless tedium of it all the way she had when she was young.

Lia listened to the sound of Iris’s purple planet socks sliding down the stairs. Her shuffling along the floorboards, searching for shoes. Perhaps she had simply been harder to love, with her strangeness, her secrecy, that early quiet rage. Perhaps, Lia thought, as Harry came in humming the first flat notes of what sounded like ‘Singing in the Rain’, and as Iris squeezed her feet into her shoes without loosening the laces, the blame could be broken and shared equally between herself, her mother, her father and the Lord God Himself, and there would come a time when she would stop finding crumbs of old questions all over their mornings.

Did you guys know, Iris said suddenly, very seriously, that one and a half acres of forest are cut down every single second? She examined the top row of her teeth in the mirror and shot Harry a sideways glance, as if to ask – and what are you going to do about it?
The Parish
Lia’s father had been a graceful, amicable man, who kept his faith close always; he wrapped it about his body tightly so that it never snagged or frayed, tripped or slipped.

Lia’s mother’s faith had a life of its own. It was huge, inscrutable. It entered rooms before she did, often announcing her arrival, and then obstructing everyone else from moving about.

People often said to Lia that growing up in such a religious family must have been a comfort.

This was not the case.

The vicarage was neither picturesque nor romantic, but rather a small, boxy house built in the early fifties to replace the previous building that had become dilapidated beyond repair. There was no trace of its old bones left, except for a few slabs of chalky limestone that mapped out a near-perfect square at the very bottom of the garden, marking the end of their domain and the start of the rest of the world. To Lia, the ruins were a fortress; the only place at home where she felt truly at peace, a small slice that was hers and hers alone. Everything else belonged to God. She never felt Him there, in the combed barley fields or the huge patchwork valleys that blanketed the land before them. But the absence of a thing will loom larger than its presence, and she felt His lack so personally, she began to wonder if there was something within her that repelled Him the way the rosemary kept the rabbits away, or the cinnamon sticks on the windowsill seemed to get rid of the ants.

Anne was watching a large ant crawl down the edge of the kitchen sink, its plump body slick and shiny as black cherry skin. At least they had stopped coming in masses. This was manageable, she thought, as she turned the cold tap and swilled the insect down the drain with her fingers.

Lia was crouched in her fortress at the end of the garden and Anne examined her daughter’s posture for a while, wondering how long it would take for her scalp to burn. Not long, she thought, under the strength of this maddening sun. Her scalp would burn, and then it would peel, and it would be a lesson.

An unusual warmth had settled over the day, softening the crisp midsummer edges, and Anne could not stand it. It was the sort of weather that got into her sinuses, crawled beneath her lids, made her certain the effort of finding her daughter a hat and going to place it on her head to prevent the inevitable burning was not worth a minute of sneezing. The hat would probably come right off anyway. And she would regret, as she always did, even trying. Peter was rustling around the kitchen in his cassock, looking for his reading glasses. Lia chewed the end of her pen furiously, adjusting herself slightly before hunching back over whatever strange new drawing she was working on today.

The evangelical in Anne had always recoiled at ‘The Arts’, for they had no obvious place in the useful, pious life. But Lia had something. It was not simply an ability to accurately depict the world, to replicate the exact gradient of a crow’s beak or the detailed creases of a hand, held out. There’s real flair there, one of Lia’s teachers had told her, a year or so ago, when Anne had been parked outside the school. The woman had rested her bony elbows on the car window ledge and Anne had stared hard at the chip shop sign in her ridiculous circular spectacles, the bent reflection of children queuing with their mothers on the other side of the street. She can capture the very essence of a thing, whilst… imbuing it with a… startling newness.

The teacher was new there. New and young and pretentious, for what nonsense this was, Anne had thought, but smiled as politely as she could nevertheless, and started the car, so as to let the intrusive woman know she had heard quite enough. Lia came out, holding a painting of a single egg in the middle of a large blue bowl. There was no essence; no startling newness. Just an egg in a bowl. And no one, thought Anne, with any sense, kept their eggs in bowls in the first place. Except for the French, perhaps.

See you tomorrow, Amelia. The teacher had smiled and walked away, smart and smug in her shoulder-padded jacket.

What’s that, then? Anne had asked, glancing in the rear mirror as they neared home.

Quiet, Lia had said.

What?

The title. I’ve called it – Quiet.

And Anne had straightened her spine in the driver’s seat, unnerved by the odd little child in the back of the car, pretending that she couldn’t see how the solitary egg in the bowl was, indeed, a very quiet-looking thing after all, as the tyres ground loudly against the gravel of their driveway.

A year later, Lia’s projects were nothing short of disturbing. She muttered quietly to herself and seemed always to be scrutinizing their life from afar, leaning against the last of the limestone – looking for things to disbelieve.

Lia glanced behind her shoulder. There was her mother, hovering ghost-like by the kitchen window. She wished she would leave her alone. With nothing much else to do over the long summer months she had built up quite a collection; paintings of Peter and his clergy as huge ravens huddling around a kitchen table, their black feathered wings tucked tightly between their robes; sketches of Anne as a dove or a very fat grey pigeon, depending on how well they were getting on that week. Every piece began the same, as soft pencil scribbles in the bible margins.

Lia had never much liked the Bible. Except the bits about

famine and death and

seas of blood,

sacrifice,

burning sulphur rain,

devils dressed up in wild disguises,

locusts cloaked in women’s hair.

She had discovered the darker pockets of the holy book far too young, alone at night, and had quickly developed an appetite for the urgent, parched feeling that would build up in her body when it was faced with something terrible,

but it could not look away.

These gruesome images had soon planted themselves in her dreams, dreams that she would present proudly the next morning at the kitchen table.

Anne would go very white and say things like, It’s the devil, Amelia, trying to get in.

Get in where? Lia would ask.

Peter would hide quietly behind his paper. Lia would sip her milk. Anne would scowl very hard at the space between the window and the sink.

Lia came to believe it was at the devil himself.

An ashy yellow breeze slid along the base of her neck. She knew better, now, than to share anything with Anne at all. She shivered and examined her work. This one had taken her a week to complete. It featured Peter’s congregation in the process of pinning Lia’s own little body up above the church altar, like the pigs she saw hanging by their hind legs in the back of the village butcher’s, the pink cheeks of her bottom exposed, fleshy arms dangling above her blood-flushed face. Mid-slaughter – her meat looked no different to the pigs. Except for the fact of her having no tail. She was sure it was one of her best.

Yes, Lia thought, holding the page out in front of her, the skin around her cuticles still white from the pressure and precision. It was finished. She was pleased. As she got to her feet, she felt briefly weighted by the familiar disappointment of having finished a thing, her body suddenly heavier, the garden a little duller. Anne had disappeared from the window. In her place, only the blotched navy shadows of the bushes and Lia’s own reflection, rooted to the centre of her ruins, looking like a giant who’d just outgrown its house, the walls having crumbled around her.

Anne found the pig picture later that afternoon. Amelia, she screamed, as if she were the one being wrenched up by her ankles, hung upside-down to dry.

When Lia entered the kitchen, the devil was in his usual spot,

swinging on the window latch with a tea towel.

Making a mockery, Anne was mumbling, a mockery of our life. Peter came into the room and peered down at the scene, his nostrils flared so that Lia could see the turquoise of his nose bone. And then he began to chuckle, and Anne turned to him in surprise, and Lia looked so suddenly pleased with herself, for conceiving the clever scene, for having made him laugh, as smug as the teacher in the shoulder-padded jacket, that Anne felt a fury flickering up through her body faster than light, a spasm of it in her fingers. Without thinking, she clipped Lia clean across the cheek, just hard enough to subtract a little chuffed colour from her face.

Peter shifted uncomfortably, as if he were overhearing an argument taking place loudly in another room. He moved softly towards the sliced tomatoes on the counter, contemplating them, for a second, before walking out the kitchen door.

A terrible silence opened its palms before them. Lia’s cheek stung.

I do not want it to be like this between us. You just make it –

so hard.

Hit her back! In the space between the window and the sink, the devil was tipping a tin of cinnamon into his red mouth, chanting, spraying spices. Spit on her, kick her, bite her, scream at her!

Anne watched a quiet rage flooding Lia’s face, like a tide coming in too quickly, dragging her out into its depths.

That evening, they knelt by the foot of Lia’s bed and prayed together, palms pressed tightly together, the thick weave of the carpet patterning bare knees. Anne spoke unusually softly in her bible tongue:

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.

Lia closed her eyes and pictured a huge black door with peeling paint and a brass knocker. She felt her whole body reaching out towards the door, all the will she could muster inside her fist as she knocked away, knuckles aching, begging the Lord to open, her scalp still warm from the midsummer sun.
The Chorus
A blight has fallen on the fruitful blossoms of the land!

The sound of voices begins to bounce off strings of muscle, making strange music.

Look, they sing, look at how it’s changed! How it’s staled, butchered, blackened.

It’s like wandering through your favourite painting

to find the scene abstracted

or like waking up on the page of a familiar fable,

quite stripped of moral maxim.

I drink up as much final quiet as I can, and wait for one or two or three to take charge;

for the leads of her life to knead their way out from the landscape’s sprouting masses.
Colour
Iris’s favourite colour from ages five to six had been pink. She had liked it so much that she had insisted she only eat pink foods, drink pink drinks. She wanted her insides to turn a bright shocking fuchsia and Lia had said, Well for that I prescribe beetroot.

Iris remembered staring at her shit in the toilet bowl after two weeks of beetroot, feeling superhuman.

But pink was just a phase. Just a gesture of something or somewhere Iris wanted to get to. She moved through and out of it a little wiser, a little more sensitive to the causality of colour and consumption.

And now, at her best age yet, it was Yellow.

Lia liked this phase more. It felt grown-up. Bold. She drew Yellow often as the fluid intangible thing that it was, sometimes a blot of gold light, a sharp buttercup tongue, a smudge of a small girl hiding in a streetlamp. All the codes around the house became yellow; the Wi-Fi, the house alarm. Lia would lace out yellow word-talks at night, discuss its pigment-science and etymology;

She derives from the proto-Indo-European root ‘ghel’,

‘to shine’ –

the mother of some magnificent words such as:

Glance

Gloaming

Glitch

Gloat

Glee

Gall

Glisten

Cloris

Chloroform

Melancholy

It’s back, Lia said, one pocketless Sunday to a patchy wall while the two of them were painting Iris’s room yellow. She felt so cowardly; so gutless, so sorry. Iris nodded solemnly.

I thought so.

She leant her head lightly against Lia’s arm for a moment, before reaching down to dip her finger in the yellow paint. She stretched her arm up, marked her mother’s forehead like a blessing, and then did the same to herself. Lia smiled sadly, and they both continued to paint with their matching triangle forehead tattoos and their individual rollers pushing, coating, sponging harder with every stroke as if they could erase all the facts and start again.

Once they were done they stepped back and stared at their work.

It’s so garish and satisfying, Lia said. Iris grinned and wiped away strands of sweaty hair stuck to the sides of her face.

What colour would you be?

I don’t know. Maybe a brown. Or a purple-grey.

Iris looked up to the ceiling and laughed one of her wide-open golden laughs and said, No no no, you’re just saying that because you’re old. Old people can be bright too.

That night in bed, still marked with her yellow blessing, Lia said, She’s amazing.

Harry said, Yeah. She’s all right.

He smiled widely and pressed his palm to his wife’s cheek. She kissed his wrist and said, I don’t want to die. He took a heavy breath. It smelt of earth. Every Sunday Harry would fall asleep with stains of their garden still on his hands. It is important not to put gloves on, he would say, it is important to feel the soil, let the dirt get under your fingernails, you need to hear through tips of skin what it is the world wants.

Lia enjoyed the sight of him labouring over their tiny slice of land.

Harry pressed his lips to her neck and then her earlobe and tried not to scream.

It was the first time either of them had ever mentioned death out loud. That crawling, colourless word. It seemed to move between them like a changeling; unfamiliar, restless, new.

Lia lay awake with her eyes closed. Feeling death’s breath on her face, his probing chubby fingers playing with her eyelashes, she listed off yellow things to keep afloat:

Bananas

The sun

Egg yolk

Cheese

Autumn leaves

Rubber ducks

Sundays

The waterproof plasters in the bathroom

Butter

Patience

Lemons

Iris’s blazing spirit
Yellow
Ah. Here. You can tell the ones that mean the most because they are more than gabble-panic fragments or faceless voices. For example:

We will call this one Yellow.

This one’s good.

She is skipping along the walls, flushed gold with the excitement of it all, and I am reminded of sunlight

sliding along the side of a house.

The sight of her makes me a little achy,

a little soft and breathy like a Marilyn birthday song

or a Christmas cold.

She listens closely, waiting, as voices splice through the hot air in various directions, pitches, squawks, clamours;

Off-kilter! Rotten! Sour!

Let’s fix it! Slay it! Snuff it out! Delay it!

Blood feels mighty thin.

Must be vigilant, cautious.

Trust no one.

She laughs. It’s so gentle a laugh it catches me off-guard.

What’s the plan? When can we start?

You search the liver and we’ll search the heart!

Soon, she says, soon, when everyone gets here.

The light of Yellow’s voice is so warm and bold I feel it clasp me, spoon me up, and for a moment I know what it feels like to be a mouse in a child’s palm or yoghurt touching lips for the first time, but the chorus launch excitedly again into their speculations and I am back, back thinking, Oooooohhh how I do love these beginnings before the pen is sharpened, the cannons are lit, the pistols are fired. Before the search begins.
The Great Democrat
When Iris was seven, her teacher asked everyone to write down what their parents’ jobs were and also suggested they drew a picture as a Creative Exercise.

There were shopkeepers and teachers and nurses and dentists, dads in IT with computers for hands, a mum drowning in bank notes, another with a spade potting small flowers with faces on.

Iris had written



across the page.

She had drawn a creaturely cell with licks of ink fingers searching out from all sides, and in the cell’s centre was a mouth, but the mouth was not ominous – instead it wore a sort of sad I’m-ever-so-sorry smile. A stick-figure mum with long red hair and hands bigger than her head stroked the cell like a pet.

When it was Iris’s turn to present her work to the class, she stood and held the sheet of paper up proudly.

Teacher coughed out a laugh covered in thorns.

That isn’t funny, Iris.

A boy at the front with the computer-hand dad frowned.

But Miss, you just laughed.

It’s OK, Iris had said. It’s fine. Lots of people don’t know how to handle it.

We do we do we do we do.

The class sang quite suddenly:

My aunt has it my dad had it my grandma my neighbour my dog my babysitter’s boyfriend’s mum has it.

Iris’s face remained solemn, her eyes widened by the thrill of sudden responsibility.

Do you want to see how it works?

Show us show us show us.

It’s all about cells, see.

She dragged her tiny chair to stand on, up in front of the whiteboard, its metal legs shrieking against the vinyl floor. Teacher hadn’t the heart to stop her. She drew a diagram of cancer in the body and the way that it works, the way it sometimes multiplies and travels through different systems, like the cir-cu-la-to-ry or the lum-pa-tic-ory but sometimes, most of the time, it gets destroyed by other clever chemical creatures that stop it in its tracks. She told them how breast cancer which was her mum’s cancer had lots to do with lymphs, which were these spirits like nymphs but without wings – they controlled a great deal of very complicated things – and the kids had sat and watched in awe.

Everyone learnt something that day.

Iris took the picture home and Lia framed it on the wall that got all the sun in their kitchen.

Thank you, lovely.

For what?

For drawing me with all that long hair.

Oh. Well, I wasn’t going to let them know I had a bald mum.

Lia often thought of this time. Thought of Iris sitting in hospital waiting chairs with her tiny legs dangling down,

spotted tights,

small shoes,

glowing face,

asking questions like,

What have you got?

As if the world was a competition of terribleness and they would absolutely win it.

But this time there was no Iris.

There was hair, but it had grown back so tentatively, so undecidedly she almost wished it hadn’t at all.

Lia was sitting in the hospital waiting for instruction with her mother, who looked hollowed out.

Anne had insisted she be there. She had accompanied Lia to her chemotherapy sessions a few times before, and Lia was convinced Anne had decided hospitals were safe, perhaps even ideal environments for Mothers Making Amends. It was the fact of their being supervised by nurses, perhaps. Restricted by noise regulations. Rooted to the place, immovable, through the drip in Lia’s arm. Lia was trying not to feel pleased to see her.

Anne was wearing the same grey cardigan she wore for special days like Palm Sunday or the Pentecost. She had meant this thoughtfully, but it just made everything feel monumental and sombre.

They hadn’t said much to each other since they had arrived, both staring blankly ahead at children’s drawings, pinned up from their corners on a noticeboard. As if prompted by the bad art, Anne turned and asked suddenly, How’s work?

Good. Fine.

What’s this one called?

Lia kept her face as straight as she could.

A Children’s Guide to Lexical Spectacles.

Anne frowned. She searched Lia’s expression for the answer to whether this was a joke.

Really?

Yes. It’s an interactive language learning book. Supposed to encourage creative thinking. That sort of thing.

How unusual, Anne said, adjusting her body in the seat,

hoping the exchange had reached an acceptable conclusion.

Lia had been producing these sorts of books since Iris was born. Lexical Spectacles had been inspired partly by their many years of bedtime word-talks. She had been working on the illustration plans for a few months, now; each lexical entry would be surrounded on the page by sketches, paintings, loose strokes of wild landscape or precise, inky detail, depending on the word, and at the end of each lexical entry –

a blank space,

to fill in one’s own definition.

The words could be homonyms, like bolt, buckle, entrance, fair, hatch, mine, squash. Or just beautiful, unusual words. Cherish or cascade. Elixir. Susurrus. Petrichor.

Anne looked relieved when the nurse called them in.

Here was the Current Situation:

There was a small scattering in

the liver, just a shade,

a deep sore kiss of it,

ink blotting about in the lung.

Both doctor and Wikipedia said: when breast cancer spread to the lungs or liver it could be treated but could not be cured.

Lia had grown very fond of her doctor. He had been looking after her and her insides for eight long years on and off and was the perfect cancer doctor in every way, except for the fact that he had just gone and died.

It is ridiculous that doctors die.

It is ridiculous that oncologists can die of cancer.

She asked the nurses how this could possibly happen when surely he had VIP access to all of the most sought-after, tried and tested, tumour-blitzing drugs, and they raised their eyebrows and said it did not really work like that. Knowing something inside out does not make you immune to its power. Lia thought of difficult mothers and books she’d read a thousand times that still made her cry and thought, yes, this seemed very true.

So here was a new man in front of them with this younger face, black emperor eyes, and something very uncomfortably confident about the way he twitch-sniffed his nose before he answered a question, like he was gathering drips of Important Information at the back of his mouth, relishing in the new tastes of life-death data.

He may have also had a cold.

This one – it’s a bit of a beast,

he said.

Anne’s eyes paced the room.

Nicknamed the Red Devil.

She puffed her chest out, let out a small thin sound, which was followed by an abrupt stillness.

Because of its colour, its toxicity, its very strong, very severe side effects.

Lia nodded along to his medical song, his chemotherapy combinations, his Doxorubicin, mustard gas, Cyclophosphamide, his nausea and vomiting and low blood counts and anti-sickness pills and rapid growth and targeting cells, and as her mother made her final wince at the strike of the ‘cell’ word,

Lia wondered what it was that she thought bodies were made up of;

just bones,

light and

holy water, perhaps –

Let’s see how you handle this first, the doctor said, looking at her suddenly very seriously.

First?

Yes. First.

Can’t that be all? Won’t it work?

Shhh, Mum.

There was the clasping of bruised speckled hands,

Lia’s thumb pressing gently on her mother’s soft purlicue.

Purlicue

Noun

[plural purlicues]
  1. 1. The skin between one’s forefinger and thumb.
  2. 2. A review of a sermon.
  3. 3. The end of a discourse.
  4. 4. ........................................................................................

Dove
Here is another. She is monumental. Speckled and sombre. A little hollowed out.

Because I am feeling kind, we will call her Dove, but she looks much more like a

scrawny street pigeon.

Look who’s turned up, eh?

She is greeted by an eruption of broken mock-applause.

Look who’s taken some time out from their holy duties!

There are thick layers of filth coating her once-white feathers; the soot and dust and debris gathered over years of rare exchanges and scratchy landline calls made far too late; she stinks with it, shrinks in it, can’t rid her lead-grey life of it, and I feel quite encouraged, quite invigorated by this one, as she puffs her chest out and makes a few snide comments about a time when life was pure,

before regret and penance and me.
Proteus
Harry was delivering a lecture on Ancient Greek Water Deities but was thinking about the freckles on Lia’s body. How much he would miss them if she died. He wondered if it would be possible to skin her and turn her into a blanket if she ever did die.

Hang her on a wall all splayed out like cowhide.

Harry never used to think awful things like this. The image floated to the electric bit at the very top of his brain and vanished. One can train awful thoughts to perform acts of all kinds, Harry thought, even vanishing acts. Lia did not know the extent of these thoughts, the extent to which they unravelled her husband. They had got steadily worse over the years and he knew it had a lot to do with this seeing Lia as a body,

a body that was ill,

a body that got in the way of this staying-alive business.

So Poseidon had a son. He is known, as many gods are, by different names. You may have heard of the Old Man of the Sea, yes, well he was also called Proteus and he could change shape at will; a great deal of philosophers, psychologists, writers and scientists (some of which we will be looking at today) have taken inspiration from his slippery form, his unknowability; he did not have a container as such; instead he could take the shape of a lion or a snake or even water itself depending on his particular playful temperament that day –

It is a shame, such a shame, Harry thought,

that to be a human is to be one thing, to be

contained, to have these walls of skin and a singular sense of self

that sloshes and slaps around the inside of us like water on the inside of a well.

He also had the gift of prophecy granted to him by his father, which meant he knew the nature of Truth but would only ever reveal it if he was captured and squeezed into his real original state –

Would he continue to love Lia if she were to change into something else? Does love even continue like we think it does? Does love preserve itself?

According to Homer, Proteus was an old man with a bandit hat. The first ever cowboy, if you like.

Click went the slide, Harry’s frame silhouetted against blue light and an etching of a sea creature riding wild folds of water.

Is that why they’re called white horses, Sir, the froth on waves?

Most likely.
Cold Cap
Before Lia put on the cold cap, she dampened and conditioned her hair in the hospital as if she were baptising a child.

She could hear very clearly Iris’s

I wasn’t going to let them know I had a bald mum.

It hadn’t worked last time. Perhaps it would now.

It all felt very futile, very vain, but then Iris had announced quite recently that vanity is just self-respect after Lia had suggested she take a break from staring in the mirror, and it had seemed very profound.

Iris was not beautiful, at least not in any traditional sense of the word, but she was so fascinated by her own appearance that it shocked Lia. Left her with a metal taste in the vaults of her mouth.

So many things could have been possible in Lia’s past if she had the kind of vanity, the kind of confidence that Iris had. Somewhere between her forefinger, thumb and

soapy wet ends came the

strange fact that

mothers could be jealous of their daughters.

Lia wondered whether her mother had ever felt it. This kind of gentle, natural jealousy.

Drying between each of her fingers with a paper towel, she stared down at the veins that, with age and illness, had risen from the back of her hands like trembling blue roads on a map. She examined her skin, her smell, the familiar taste at the back of her throat, the gentle clutch of cold on her shoulders, soaking in the exquisite sensation of normalcy; You won’t feel this for a while. This human. This clean.

Her mother was waiting next to the chair where it all happened, where they’d put her in the cap, rewire her, fix her fuses then plug her in like a Christmas tree, caged in

nothing but bright red lights

that scorch at slightest touch.

She did not look jealous.
Warm-Ups
He’s coming.

The little devil, unlikely hero

singing, staining his way

through the peripheral vein,

all strange and red and

perfectly cooked for destruction.

For one brief moment

blush-quick, a fearful something

slips and limps within me, so much that I

sink

sink

sink past ribbons, scoops,

I sink on through

serosa,

parietal,

stem, great mountains of

mucus before

enterwhatsisname?

Enteroendocrine, marks of some

hard laughs here, footprints

headed home, Yes Chief,

I sink on down like a moon

rips through night, or faith parts

reason like a comb, and

hide deep enough to be mistaken for

a mere dodgy dinner,

or a spot of

salmonella.
Daisy Bell
Anne spoke quietly, respectfully, of new curtains and a holiday planned for March. Lia nodded along. Their eyes fell for a moment on the liquid red drip, the silence like a burning prayer.

Drip,

drip,

drip,

Amen.

Her mother began to doze off, the wrinkles on her forehead tumbling between her brows, piling up on the arch of her nose. She looked so odd, so old, so tired. Anne seemed out of place everywhere except church. Lia used to marvel at the way her mother’s form would slot into church, as if the two made each other whole, somewhat understandable. After Peter’s services, while he was at the front Playing Priest Perfectly and the church was squeezing the congregation out two by two by two, Lia would catch her mother turning to face the altar, gazing up at the dove and the olive branch pieced into the window, receiving, it would seem, direct instructions from the Lord Himself. Catching the end of a secret meant only for her.

Despite the violence of her bible tongue and the crippling silent codes she shrouded every inch of their lives in, for those five seconds, with slices of stained window light behind her, she was the saintliest thing in the world.

Dribble had started to leak from the corner of Anne’s lip, beginning a glistening journey down the hard line on her chin. It was funny, funny watching the person that once governed your life look such a fool. Lia wondered if she’d ever really forgive her. She focused on the stalk of spit, willing it to keep going, wilt down onto the grey cardigan, trying not to think about how the freezing felt.

She had made a song for the cold cap chemo hours. To remedy the boredom, the strange, relentless pain. Lia and Iris often made songs. This was not one of their best; they’d just rewritten the words to ‘Daisy Bell’ with its marriages and carriages and looking sweet on a bicycle seat. It had been hummed so frequently by Lia’s father that its tune had etched itself

unthinkingly

but

politely inside the place

where music is made.

Cold cap, cold cap

Give me a cold, you do,

I’m half brain-dead

Due to the cold of you,

You’re not a stylish bonnet,

And this is not a sonnet,

But it sings sweet

As you complete

Freezing my head straight through.

Round and round it went as the hours rung on, the rhythms and notes folding over each other like spells that could cure, that sore something, rising and rattling in awful interludes.

A final slow injection. A clear liquid disappearing inside. The most unnatural of sensations; the kind so severe it forces you to dissociate entirely from your body’s substance,

and then it was over.

Outside the hospital, Harry was waiting in the car park. Anne smiled politely at him and kissed Lia’s cheek, accidentally grazing the edge of her lip. Lia tried to pretend it wasn’t the most intimate moment they had shared in years.

On the way home, Anne blushed at the thought of their lips touching, at the fact of Harry having witnessed it. She felt it must have looked grotesque. Desperate. She would not be so careless again.
Some Red Facts
Red is travelling as boys often do:

on a bike.

Not quite a noble steed, but a great mustard beast of a bike, which blazes its own spun hymn of chain against metal, and will no doubt serve devilish Red as well as Gringolet served Gawain, or Arion served Adrastus, or Marengo served Napoleon.

The three of us have a history. Double-cream truffle-rich history.

And it must be said that despite Red’s tortuous methods,

he has had many success stories.

They line the shelves of his lightless Red Home as perfect, small trophies,

moulded from the different skins he has saved.

He doesn’t much like to think of those who got away,

slipped the net, fell through the cracks

and into my lap.

They are mine mine mine.

Despite being deeply hidden in my deeply secret spot, I can

still hear his ridiculous triumphal entry into the heart, still

beating a steady welcome, can still feel the chorus spreading their cloaks

down on the red road as the beast burns through,

all Mah-May-Me-Mo-Moooos,

all yodels, yells, riffs and licks.

Think of the friction-clatter of sticks, rubbing

into early fire, and then

imagine you are

petrol.
Options
When Lia got home, Iris was curled up like a question mark in her very yellow room doing physics homework. Lia asked if she needed any help. She shook her head as if it was unlikely Lia could be of any –

Unless you know about transverse rays.

Lia did not. There would come a time, she thought, when nothing that she knew would be of any use to anyone.

It had only been a year since they had pored over Iris’s Verbal Reasoning 11+ exercise books together. Spent hours labouring over paper that was so thin you could see straight into the next exercises.

Fish is to (hop, run, swim) as bird is to (walk, slide, fly). Hole is to (grown, whole, entire) as grown is to (groan, whistle, full). Scream is to (flood, fold, whisper) as brave is to (laugh, beat, weak).

Circle the Correct Pairing. Lia would sit opposite her, drawing out her own, thinking about how delicious her daughter’s ears looked that day and wondering why it was that she so recoiled at this correct word:

Life is to (eat, fuck, death) as lemons are to (ice, water, lime). Sleep is to (scrape, wake, sigh) as stand is to (drift, blink, lie). Thyme is to (chilli, parsley, basil) as time is to (cancer, cancer, cancer).

It always takes me so long, Iris would say.

Lia had been of no help to her then, either, for she would lean forward and study the brackets, those puddles of choice, and think things like:

To scream is to flood just as much as it is to whisper, and brave is certainly to laugh just as it is to beat. And maybe, in a world where fish is to run and bird is to slide, I would still have my breasts.

She would tell Iris to circle all three and go to put the kettle on.
The Gardener
I think often of my early travelling days, when I was just getting accustomed to the theatre of disguise, finding ways of existing without being noticed.

This is the trick. Learning to be in a hundred places all at once,

learning to animate a dozen different faces.

See here, for example:

Skimming between the third and fourth fold of the intestine,

a leafy man with dandelion eyes and soil for skin

looks rather lost. This is where the fun can be had.

I split myself quickly into a fish with long strong legs and a bird that slides like a snake just in time for

him to approach, introduce himself politely as The Gardener,

and ask if I’ve seen Yellow or Dove or, indeed,

a devil anywhere.

I clear my two new throats, tell him to head north,

but he could also go west, or east,

for there are quite a few paths

that lead to the same place.

He thanks the both of me with earthy kisses and continues on his way.

In the space where the kisses were planted,

I feel a burn the shape of a husband’s hope.
The Stranger
He arrived one night at the door in the rain. It was so perfect Lia almost dismissed the sound completely, the sound of a stranger knock knock knocking at the door of their plain boxed lives.

He stayed for four years at the vicarage but really he never left.

This was one of the few good things about having a vicar for a father – one could not easily turn away homeless strangers. It would not reflect well on the Church.

His name was Matthew and her parents had argued about letting him in. He was a boy really, straddling the awkward space between childhood and manhood, growing out of himself. Lia remembered the way he looked at the door as if he were a snake and the rain had just washed off a layer of his skin.

Unwrapped and remade, there he was.

She often wondered whether he even existed before that moment.

He had very dark hair and a strange, unflinching face.

He was the most beautiful thing twelve-year-old Lia had ever seen.

She had not gone straight to the door. It had been Anne, who had then quickly called for Peter, who had retreated up to bed early after a particularly empty funeral he had orchestrated that day. Empty funerals always left him in a terrible mood. He did not look surprised to see this stranger at their door. Matthew had told them something, something about who he was and why he was there, and Lia had missed the details which bothered her for very many years after. She had gone to the stairs and observed the strange scene playing out, sliding down a few steps to try and catch what was being said. The shape of the moment felt like an exact summation of what being a child was; sitting on the top stair of a house trying to look out at the world with two cork-stopper parents blocking the way.

But then they had moved, and Lia found herself at the bottom of the stairs directly in front of the stranger. He had smiled at her and said hello there very clearly but not altogether naturally, like he was trying something for the first time. Lia felt the sound of his voice in her bones. Anne asked if he would give them a moment to talk and the stranger said of course, but Lia watched him edge further into the doorway, as if he knew what the verdict would be in the end. Peter and Anne moved back down the corridor into the kitchen, leaving the two of them there, alone. She felt suddenly quite aware of his height against hers, the intensity of his gaze, the fizz and tingle of it as if someone were placing a cold hand on the warm flesh of her neck.

What’s your name? he had asked. For a moment, Lia wasn’t sure.

When they spoke of this evening much later in their lives, Matthew remembered her having said Lia very confidently, looking him dead in the eyes straight through his brain into the tick of his mind.

Lia knew she’d said nothing. She knew she had felt quite paralysed, her throat having hardened to a flat stony silence. She had gone to eavesdrop by the kitchen instead, where an argument was crackling behind the door in spits and licks:

We cannot just—

For God’s sake, Anne, you’re being

hysterical.

Lia loved hearing her father say for God’s sake, the O of his God hurled hard like a round shot.

She looked back at the man-boy still soaking from the rain, lifting his hands up to his forehead and scraping his hair back off his face. It was a face full of brilliant hard lines that rounded gently off at their intersections. His eyes were set quite deep into his skull, and there was a sadness in the slight press of his temples. Lia had never felt so conscious of her own appearance, of how she might look to him, standing close to the door, listening to the argument growing in the kitchen.

Remember your scripture.

Lia knew what her father would say next. He would use bible tongue. Her mother would go silent, and he would win. Because here is a fact: you can’t beat bible tongue.

Love him

as yourself.

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers for

thereby

some have entertained

angels unawares.

I seriously doubt this boy is an angel, Peter.

And then, incontestable, the words of Christ Himself:

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.

There was a silence. It was that particular stuffed silence full of the winning of something. Then Peter was opening the kitchen door, ignoring the eavesdropping Lia and welcoming the stranger in with apologies, questions, suggestions of tea. Lia heard her mother sigh and shuffle quietly over to the kettle, spitting a final squashed and caged,

He is certainly not

Christ.

In Lia’s memory of this evening, everything glittered and dripped, every surface had a slippery, curious sheen. Iris had just reached the exact age she had been. Perhaps this was the reason she had gone back to look at it all, to examine it closer. There were new, obvious things that announced themselves now, like how vulnerable her mother had seemed, or how easily her father had dismissed them both. Other elements had fallen away entirely. She could recall the shape of Matthew’s rain-beaded mouth opening and closing, for example, but she could no longer remember his voice.
Fossil
There is one buried so deep, beaten so far down, he is very late to the party.

A hard or bitter hidden badness, a rotten throb, thaw of regret;

he cracks his lidless eyes apart and rips out from where he kept.

Nobody notices.

Nobody notices a thing, because Yellow is explaining loudly how to conduct a successful search party, and those of the chorus with feet and/or hands are lacing their boots and/or hitching their pistols, and Dove is muttering prayers under her bird-breath while The Gardener is eyeing up Red the way one man might size up another leaning a little too close to his wife at closing time, all while Red is simply itching to burn. And so, it is only I who sees this stranger, lurking in the periphery, prowling near her spine the way spirits haunt staircases.

We will call him Fossil.

He reminds me of shadows lengthening from the edge of the frame, an accidental constellation, a preservation, a taunt, a secret history, very Mary Shelley, or grim late-night telly. He moves

quietly into her

lung.

The lungs are some of my absolute favourite places.

If you flattened them both out, they would fill up a whole tennis court.

Other Things I Know:

She inhales around thirteen pints of air a day and exhales billions and billions of molecules of oxygen in a moment. There is a theory that every person will have a sliver of

every other person that has ever lived just quietly pass on through them at some time or another. I find this thought surprisingly moving.

I spend a lot of time here. It’s my little home-away-from-home, as they say. My little Hamptons-safehouse-countryside-getaway, where I can build extensions or key down the corridors or play knock-down-ginger on the many bronchioles splitting off like a dead-end maze, and I just addooreee the store of gasps, the Hall of Fame in which the best breaths are framed, a lot of firsts and lasts:

The One When The Daughter Was Born

The One When Carrie White’s Hand Shot Out From The Grave

The One When He Arrived At The Door

And so on.

You can imagine why, as this stony-ghost-what-reminds-me-of-someone enters what I consider to be a dear dwelling place of mine, I should begin to feel a little put out, a little bitter, incommodious.

And then something most unexpected –

he sees me.

He looks at me dead straight through my walls into the tick of my life and I think, Shit.

He tries to scream, to shout, to call for the others. Nothing happens. The place remains as quiet as one would expect any left lung to be on a Thursday mid-afternoon. It is then that I realize –

he can’t say a word. Can’t make a sound. And it must be something to do with the way her body has been forced to forget or digest him, or perhaps it’s simply the fact that being a fossil for too long can really weigh on a man; the mud and silt and sadness must get all up and into your voice box. Either way, I do what anyone with a sense of humour would and I ahahahahaha! right into his petrified face.

He scrapes his fossil fingers over his

fossil forehead, the chips in his cheeks, and tries and tries to speak, and all the while I’m laughing and laughing and thinking –

Poor thing, poor thing, poor old

forgotten thing,

so delighted by the whole ordeal I almost forget that elsewhere,

a burning is beginning,

a hide-and-seek scattering has started, and now all the children are loose in my woods.

About The Author

Photograph by Ben Mankin

Maddie Mortimer was born in 1996. She received her BA in English literature from the University of Bristol. She lives in London, where she works as a screenwriter and an author. Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies is her first novel.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (June 28, 2022)
  • Length: 448 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982181772

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Raves and Reviews

"This is a touching, eye-opening perspective on life and illness like you've never read before."Good Housekeeping

"Ambitious... Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies sets its own terms."The Guardian

"English novelist Mortimer's debut novel is a poetic story of a woman and the cancer that consumes her body... Using word placement, font, and shape to create images on the page, Mortimer deepens the reader’s engagement with the story and characters ... Through breathtaking attention to detail, Mortimer crafts a stunning novel that touches on the expanses one life can contain."Booklist (starred)

"Maddie Mortimer's dazzling debut novel about a woman with breast cancer is a life-affirming read - all the more so because of its proximity to death... While there are many books that explore these themes, it is rare to find one that does so in such an immersive and harrowing way."The Straits Times

"Both expansive and intimate, Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies is an intricate portrait of a life hurtling towards the inevitable. An extraordinary debut."—Kiran Millwood Hargrave, author of The Mercies

"Here is a book to dance and sing about. An extraordinary, kaleidoscopic dive into language."—Daisy Johnson, author of Sisters

"An original and memorable novel written in shimmering prose. The characters stayed with me long after I’d finished reading."—Sarah Moss, author of Summerwater

"Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies is a beautiful novel about death that feels completely alive, pulsing with tenderness and wit." —Megan Hunter, author of The End We Start From

"An extraordinary debut, unlike anything I've read. Wildly inventive, poetic and poignant, this is a rare gem of a novel that took my imagination to new places and touched my heart."—Emma Stonex, Sunday Times bestselling author of The Lamplighters
 

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