Friday, 27 June 2014

Blog Tour: That Dark Remembered Day by Tom Vowler

Hello all

I am really pleased to be part of the blog tour for Tom Vowler's great book 'That Dark Remembered Day'. Thank you to Tom and Headline books for including me.

I am excited to be able to bring you an extract of the book (which is really good), as well as having 3 copies of the book to giveaway.

Extract from That Dark Remembered Day 

Spring 1983

In those last moments of childhood, before everything splintered forever, he watched her disappear along the lane. They’d got off the  school  bus  together,  made  plans  to meet later in the woods  behind his house,  nervous  and exhilarated at what  might  occur.  Their fumblings of the last few weeks, gloriously ardent explorations of one another that had so far been contained, now longed for a crescendo, a progression to unknown, untasted delights. He assumed it would  be her first time  too,  although when  he’d asked,  she’d just  smiled  and pulled  him  closer. It irritated  him  that his own bedroom was ruled  out  for  such  a momentous occasion,  his  father,  with the  exception   of  walking  the  dog,  home   all  day  since  his return  from  the  war, ghosting  between  rooms,  ever present, albeit   in   a  vacant   approximation  of  himself.   There was enough to contend with performance, the mechanics of the thing without the fear of someone walking in, though the woods hardly guaranteed privacy. He’d wanted  so badly to ask his friend  for advice, a sense of what  to expect, but  of course  the  one   person   he  could   ask  about   such  matters was now the one person  he couldn’t.
Once she was out of sight, he caught up with his friend, a friend   he’d  replaced   in  the  girl’s affections hoping  the awkwardness  between   them,   the  sense  of  betrayal,  would recede  a  little  in  the  days  ahead.   More  than   anything, he wanted  his  friend  to  punch  him,  to lash  out  in  a rage that would  see them  sprawling  on the ground, bloodied but with the tension broken. Anything but this silence. He wanted  to say  sorry,  how  neither   of  them had  meant   it  to  happen, that   you  couldn’t   help   your  feelings,  that   he  hoped  the three  of them  could  still hang  around together.

Instead  he kicked a stone along the road, watching  it skim and  buck,  hoping his friend  might  join  in, before  the hedge claimed  it. Passing the gate they sometimes climbed  over for a smoke,  he  suggested  a fishing  trip  at the  weekend,  if the weather  held;  he’d  found   a  new  spot,  miles  upriver  from the  old  iron  bridge.  There  would  be  chub  and  roach,  even a  barbel  if they  got  lucky.  They could  get  up  at  first light Saturday,  pack  some  food,  make  a  flask of  tea,  then  meet by the  oak  tree in the  top  field and  walk down  to the  river with   their   rods.   ‘How about it?’  he said,  looking   at  his friend’s  back. Still the silence, the unspoken allegation of theft, his friend striding on in anger.

Reaching the houses  on the outskirts  of town,  he saw a car on  the  brow  of the  hill,  sideways  on  so that  it blocked  the road,  and  they  stood   staring  at  it  for  a  moment. One of its doors   was open,   the engine ticking away.  Beyond the car, the town’s lone traffic lights passed through their silent cycle, the roads   leading off them empty as a Sunday morning. Someone was shouting, perhaps half a mile away, the pitch of the words rising, the sound just carrying to them on the breeze.

They walked on, around the car and up to the crossroads, where several dogs barked in a discordant choir.  A hundred yards  or  so  along   Cross  Street,  they  could see a bicycle abandoned on  the  pavement, the  groceries  from  its  basket spilt  on  to the  side of the road,  a trail  of fruit strewn  along the  gutter.  Opposite  the  bike,  outside   the  newsagent’s,  a pushchair was upended as if it had  fallen  from  the  sky, its contents long  gone,  and  he realised  that  that  was what  was missing:  people.  To the north, beyond  the  town,  they could hear a siren now,  distant  like white  noise.

At the fork in the road, the two of them  separated without speaking,  and  a few seconds  later he found  himself  running past  the  churchyard and  out  of town, over the  humpbacked bridge,  where finally he stopped to catch  his breath.  Hands on  knees, puffing,  he looked  ahead,  seeing  by  the  side  of the road a mound that looked  both  ridiculous and common- place.  Still  as  a  rock,  it  had  been  covered  almost   entirely by  an  old  grey blanket,   and  as  he  passed  it,  as  his  mind processed   what  it  was,  he  felt  his  heart  quicken, da-dum da-dum, as if it were dancing.

Part One

Autumn 2012
Grateful   to emerge from   the violence   of his  dreams,   he prepared for the   hangover   awaiting   him.   Somewhere   in the  fog of his  sentience  Zoe left for work,  the  front  door  if not  slammed, then  closed  with  scant  consideration. She’d have   made   their   daughter’s   breakfast,   got  her   ready   for school,   but   with   nothing  of  significance   to  fill  his  days now,  the  school  run  had  become   his  alone.  Reaching  for some  painkillers in  the  bedside   drawer,  Stephen   knocked over the glass of water, the last of which  trickled  in a rivulet into   the  paperback  he’d  yet  to  start.  A pallid   light  bled through the curtains  and  he winced  at the emptiness the day promised,  as  if  all  its  moments  had   already   been   glued together  with  inertia.  The steady  build-up of  traffic on  the road  into   town   could   be  heard,   an  insidious  taunt   from those   with   routine  in  life,  whose   days  were  a  series  of edifying events.

Downstairs, Amy was finishing her cereal, her lunchbox standing proud in the middle of the table. She looked  at him standing there  in  his  underwear, unshaven, her  face full  of concern  that  they’d be late again.‘Hey, you,’ he said, offering a reassuring smile as he made himself a strong coffee.  There  was  a note  from  Zoe:  some groceries  to  get if he  went  into  town,  a suggestion  of what to  cook  tonight, that  she  would  be  home  late  again.  She’d signed off with This can’t go on.

He too wondered how long it could be endured. Initially, for  the  first  couple   of  weeks,  he’d  savoured   the  leisurely rhythm of  his  days,  filling  the  mornings with  long-put-off jobs around the house, the afternoons with fishing for pollock or  bass  off  the  harbour wall,  perhaps a  few  quid  on  one of  the  afternoon races  before  congregating  by  the  school gates.  But the  absence  of  structure  gave his  mind  space  to lurch  into  darker  realms,  turning  in on  itself and  sabotaging the   quiet progress,   bringing   into   relief  the ‘episode’,  as Zoe now referred to it.

She  had  tried  to  draw  him  into  an  exchange  about   his recent  transgression – the  hows  and  whats,  if not  the  why something he’d resisted  for now.  And whereas  her instinct was  to  show  support, to  be,  as  they  said,  there  for  him, her face could barely hide the incredulity at the situation he’d brought upon  them.

‘What made  you do such a thing?’
‘I’ve tried to tell you, I don’t know.’

They   had   made    love   last   night,    a   frantic   scramble he’d initiated once she had stopped reading.  There was something   about    his    enforced  idleness    that    lent    the passion,  on his part at least, additional vigour, perhaps desperation, as  if  impotence, real  or  symbolic,  could  take root  in  such  times.  Once  he’d  finished,  she’d  rolled  over, patting  his thigh  with  her trailing  hand  in felicitation, sleep coming  for her in seconds.

After  walking   Amy  to  school,   he  took   the   binoculars and   trekked   out   of  town,   along   the   coast  path,   hoping the  brackish  air  would   calm  him  as  he  stopped to  watch cormorants  skim   over  the   water,  tight   to  the   surf,  their elongated necks cleaving the  air like arrow  shafts.  If he was lucky,  a kestrel  would  hover  at  eye level, out  over  the  cliff edge,  scanning   for  small   mammals  or  nesting   birds.   At this  time  of year the  sea could  be  black  as ink  as it roiled beneath a flinty,  turbulent sky. He  looked  out  beyond  the headland, picturing  the  rusting  hulks  of wrecked  ships  that ghosted  the  sea floor,  forests  of kelp  slowly  claiming  them. In  the  distance,  out  in  the  Channel, sheets  of  rain  slanted downwards  as   if   smudged  from   the   cloud,    while   on the  horizon a vein  of sunlight  divided  land  from  sky. If he made  good  time,  he  could  be  near  Helford  by  lunchtime; he’d stop  for a pint,  warming  himself  by the  fire. The beer would be honeyed, a pint would become two, his hangover almost forgotten. Later he would time the walk back to pick Amy up from school.

The terms of his suspension, although anticipated, felt ridiculous. None  more  so  than  the  mile  radius  of  campus he  was  to  remain  beyond   until  the  hearing.  He’d  held  on to   the   vague   hope   that   a  resolution  could   be   reached informally,  his  apology,   if  sincere  enough,  accepted.   But the lecturer had lodged   his complaint with unambiguous expectation:  he   would   settle   for   nothing less than   the full  disciplinary procedure. HR had  written  to  him,  stressing that  he  should seek representation – a friend,  someone from  the  union that  he  would  remain   on  full  pay,  but  a  return   to  work  was  out  of  the  question. A link to the university’s constitution was provided, should he wish to read it.

The day in question had unfurled in benign fashion for the most part.  As a senior technician in the marine biology department, his job was a varied one.  One  day he could  be collecting  plankton for  student research,  the  next mapping seagrass meadows on  the  ocean  floor,  or,  more  prosaically, feeding   and   monitoring  fish  stocks.   Colleagues   came   to him  with  all   manner  of   requests,   whether    practical   or scholastic,  his  knowledge respected  throughout the  faculty and  beyond  an  encyclopedic familiarity  with  his  subject that  had  emerged  from  a private  passion  rather  than  formal schooling. If  this  led  to  accusations of  arrogance,   he  was unaware   of  them,   though  some   probably  regarded   him brusque,  even   rude   on   occasion,   his   emails   lacking   the deferential etiquette required. But nothing had ever spiralled beyond the occasional tetchy or sarcastic exchange.

In recent months, however, small pressures had built up following a departmental shake-up. As their workload increased, resentment was cultivated.  Talk of cutbacks laced conversations, rumours that they’d have to reapply for their jobs.  Tensions between teaching staff and technicians could flare with minimal provocation as goodwill was slowly withdrawn. Lecturers,  though, while  often  ignorant of how much  work their requests  involved,  were generally courteous, his  relationship with  all  but  one  productive and,  at  least superficially,  egalitarian. But David   Ferguson   had   never   warmed   to   him.   Not since they’d clashed several years ago over conditions of an experiment into   the immune systems of trout.   Not  since  Stephen   had  confronted him  with  suspicions that  a  mass mortality  among   the   fish  was  his   fault.   And not   since Ferguson’s   fellow   lecturer,   Zoe   Wheeler,   had   moved   in with Stephen.   This  last  was  conjecture, but  Ferguson  was certainly  fond  of  Zoe  and  had  barely  hidden his  surprise when   she   got  together   with   a  technician  rather   than   a member of the  academic  staff. Stephen  had  once  suspected the   man   of   being   one   of   her   former   lovers,   but   this seemed  unlikely  on  a campus  where  extracurricular  pursuits between  members of staff rarely went unnoticed.

And so for years the two men  had  allowed  a tacit feud to steadily  gather,  its impetus bolstered by each  barbed  email, every point  of conflict  exploited  or stored  for future  vitriol. The fact that Stephen   suspected   he  knew  more  about   his subject than  Ferguson  only served to intensify  the ill feeling. And  perhaps on  some  level  Ferguson  sensed  this  too,  his behaviour  a  defence  against   a  perceived   inadequacy: that for all his  academic  prowess  and  stature  in  the  field,  when it  was  stripped   down,   he  knew  less  than   the  technicians he regarded  as serving him.
The escalation had occurred in the weeks before, midway through a six-month feeding trial. Part of Stephen’s role was to  look  after  the  automatic feeders,  check  the  power  to  the pumps, change  the filters when  necessary.

In a hurry to get away one evening, he had inexplicably forgotten to set one of the internal alarms.  Overnight, oxygen levels  had  depleted, and  with  no  intervention, most  of  a tank  of fish lay floating  on the surface by morning, meaning the  whole  trial  would   have  to  start  again.  It  was  his  first significant  error  in  the  job,  the  blame  his  alone.  Ferguson, perhaps mindful of Stephen’s past criticism of him, didn’t hold back, despite the presence of two technicians and several research students.

Stephen took the rebuke without reply, his own sense of guilt fuelling the admonishment as Ferguson left with a disdainful shake of his head.  But in the  hour  that  followed, a  sensation made  itself  known  in  his  chest,  a  tightness  of breath   as  if  his  own  ribs  were  compressing  him.   As the agitation grew, nausea   rose  from   his  stomach,  his  head pulsing  with  a quiet  rage. Even now, he couldn’t remember the walk to Ferguson’s office, who he might have passed and ignored   on campus.   What  he  could   recall  was  the  man’s expression   of  astonishment  as  Stephen   pushed  open   the door,  walked  steadily  across  to  the  desk  and  brought a fist down  hard  into  the side of Ferguson’s face. After the  incident, he was told  to go home,  a phone call from  the  senior  technical  manager  later  that  day informing him that suspension was inevitable.  The offence was a serious one, of course:  the  physical  assault  of  a colleague,  a facial injury   that,   although  not   requiring   stitches,   bled   significantly.  There  would   be  bruising,   a  black  eye  that   passed through the  spectrum   of  hues  in  the  days  that  followed, whispered outrage  from  all who  saw it. The police had not been called, though Stephen was advised that this remained an option for the complainant. There were three disciplinary levels he could be subject to. An oral  warning  would  be  normal for  a  first  offence,  but unlikely  given  the  severity  of  the  incident. Even  a  written warning  would  be lenient,  the  woman from  the  union had advised  him  in their  brief telephone conversation last week.

Either of these would stay on his record for a year before, in the event that   no repetition occurred,   being wiped   clear. Or,  quite  reasonably, the  committee could  decide  that  the offence  warranted dismissal,  which  he  could  appeal  against if he produced some  mitigating circumstances. And what form might these take, beyond the vague sense of his unravelling?   Of  the  appalling crisis  building  inside him,  the  likely cause  of which  he’d managed to  keep  from colleagues,  from  his  wife, all these  years? No, better not to resist whatever punitive squall they unleashed his way. Better to ride it out, hunker down, try for once not to pick a fight with life. The  hearing  itself  was  in  three  weeks,  enough time  for witnesses   to  be  called,   written   submissions  to  be  made. A supreme arbiter would be appointed, likely the Vice Chancellor, a brute of a woman whose sermonic emails displayed   a  level  of  corporate jargon  Stephen  could  rarely fathom. He could expect little sympathy from her.

He’d  waited  until  after  dinner that  evening  to  tell  Zoe, who’d  been  off campus and  hadn’t  heard.  She spoke  of the embarrassment,  of   colleagues’   reactions,   of   what   would happen if he lost his job, checking  every few minutes that  it had  actually  happened, that  a mistake  hadn’t  been  made,  or that  she  wasn’t the  victim  of some  ill-judged  practical  joke. And later, when her inquisition petered   out, she’d looked hard at him, scrutinising his face as someone might a stranger, disquieted and appalled, perhaps a little frightened even.

 The wind was gusting  now,  a fine  rain  blinding him  if he looked  into it. Herring gulls and fulmars rode the thermals in graceful arcs, the  easy rhythm of their  flight soothing him.  The gulls on  the  beach  below  issued  proud, barbarous cries as they  delved  into  the  seaweed  or jabbed  at stranded cuttlefish.  Beyond  them,  groups  of sanderlings gathered  on the  tideline   in  search  of  sand  shrimps, scuttling  comically back  and   forth   with  each  breaking   wave,  froths  of  foam eddying   around  them.   As  he   rounded  the   headland,  a couple  of walkers passed  him  on the path,  a genial nod  and half-smile  exchanged,  their  dog  scampering back  and  forth, nose  to  the  ground. Inhaling deeply,  he  felt that  the  briny air had  imbued him  sufficiently  now,  dulling  his  headache to a faint pulse.

Did it mean anything?  Beyond  the  fact that  his  temper could  flare these  days  with  such  small  provocation? A fuse that,  while  never  being  interminable, had  now  barely  any length  at all. When,  a couple  of months ago,  the  technical manager  had  called  him  in,  asking  if there  were  problems he  should be  aware  of,  mentioning that  Stephen   seemed uptight, often  curt,  he’d  tucked  it  away  in the  part  of  his mind  that resisted enquiry.  Last week Zoe had even suggested he seek help.‘The union know,’ he said. ‘They’ll help me prepare or the hearing.’ ‘I didn’t mean that sort of help.’ He took a few seconds to catch up. ‘That’s a bit overboard, isn’t it?’ ‘If you won’t talk to me . . .’ ‘We do talk.’ ‘Apparently not about this, though. Not about your childhood.’ ‘What do you want to know?’ ‘I don’t understand what’s happening to  you,  why  you did it.’ ‘I’ve told you why.’ ‘You don’t hit someone because they’re an arsehole.’ ‘It was a one-off,   an aberration.  I don’t   know,   stress of work.’ ‘I’m scared.’ ‘Of me?’ ‘Of it all.’

This they shared, for the manifestation of violence had left him shaken at this new capability.  Beyond childhood scrapes and  a  scuffle in  a  pub  a  few  years  ago,  he’d  avoided  any physical   run-ins,   despite   a  contrary   personality,  one   that shifted  easily to  aggravation  after a few drinks.  He’d always known both when to stifle the antagonising of others and how   to   stop   his   own   temper   rising.  The incident with Ferguson was inexplicable.  It  belonged  to  the   realms   of fantasy,  one  you  let play  out  in  glorious  retrospect  in  your mind,   while  acknowledging gratitude   for  decades  of  social mores    and    evolving   civility   that    prevented   you   from punching colleagues  you loathed.

Again  he  tried  to  recall  details  of  the  seconds   leading up  to it. There was a hangover, as was increasingly the case these days. There was general resentment towards aspects of work. He’d argued with Zoe the night before.  Amy had been difficult over breakfast.  Yet none  of this  excused  what  he’d done,  the  terrible  person  he  was apparently becoming, the origin  of which  didn’t bear thinking about. He looked   out to the open   water, its irregular   surface specked with half a dozen fishing boats. A tanker sat sombrely on the horizon. For a moment he thought he saw the dorsal fin of a basking shark cutting through the swell a few hundred yards out, but by the time   he found   the spot   with   the binoculars, it had gone. Most, if not all of them, would have left for the warmer waters of the south by now.  On  the  tip of  the  promontory  ahead,   sea  heaved   at  the  rock,  slamming  into  its  coves,  the  water  forced  up  a  blowhole with each wave, spuming into  the wind.

Inland the  cloud  had  opened, just  a crack, allowing  the sun  to  wash  briefly  over  the  fields,  chased   by  a  surging line  of  shadow.  A pair of choughs squabbled in the gorse that flanked the path.  Ahead,  through the  drizzle,  he  could just  make  out  the  bone-white walls of the  pub  a couple  of miles  along  the  coast,  and  he  pictured   himself   sitting  by its fire indefinitely. 

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A bit about Tom Vowler

Tom Vowler lives in south-west England. In 2007 he completed an MA in creative writing, and since then his short stories have appeared widely. Tom is the assistant editor of the literary journal Short Fiction. His debut collection of short stories, The Method & Other Stories won the Scott Prize (2010) and the Edge Hill Award (2011). He is an Associate Lecturer in creative writing at the University of Plymouth. That Dark Remembered Day is his second novel.


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