Read the opening of the Costa Book of the Year, Nathan Filer‘s The Shock of the Fall…
the girl and her doll
I should say that I am not a nice person. Sometimes I try to be, but often I’m not. So when it was my turn to cover my eyes and count to a hundred – I cheated.
I stood at the spot where you had to stand when it was your turn to count, which was beside the recycling bins, next to the shop selling disposable barbecues and spare tent pegs. And near to there is a small patch of overgrown grass, tucked away behind a water tap.
Except I don’t remember standing there. Not really. You don’t always remember the details like that, do you? You don’t remember if you were beside the recycling bins, or further up the path near to the shower blocks, and whether actually the water tap is up there?
I can’t now hear the manic cry of seagulls, or taste the salt in the air. I don’t feel the heat of the afternoon sun making me sweat beneath a clean white dressing on my knee, or the itching of suncream in the cracks of my scabs. I can’t make myself relive the vague sensation of having been abandoned. And neither – for what it’s worth – do I actually remember deciding to cheat, and open my eyes.
She looked about my age, with red hair and a face flecked in hundreds of freckles. Her cream dress was dusty around the hem from kneeling on the ground, and clutched to her chest was a small cloth doll, with a smudged pink face, brown woollen hair, and eyes made of shining black buttons.
The first thing she did was place her doll beside her, resting it ever so gently on the long grass. It looked comfortable, with its arms flopped to the sides and its head propped up a little. I thought it looked comfortable anyway.
We were so close I could hear the scratching and scraping, as she began to break up the dry ground with a stick. She didn’t notice me though, even when she threw the stick away and it nearly landed on my toes, all exposed in my stupid plastic flipflops. I would have been wearing my trainers but you know what my mum’s like. Trainers, on a lovely day like today. Surely not. She’s like that.
A wasp buzzed around my head, and usually that would be enough to get me flapping around all over the place, except I didn’t let myself. I stayed totally still, not wanting to disturb the little girl, or not wanting her to know I was there. She was digging with her fingers now, pulling up the dry earth with her bare hands, until the hole was deep enough. Then she rubbed the dirt from her fingers as best she could, picked up her doll again, and kissed it twice.
That is the part I can still see most clearly – those two kisses, one on its forehead, one on the cheek.
I forgot to say, but the doll wore a coat. It was bright yellow, with a black plastic buckle at the front. This is important because the next thing she did was undo the buckle, and take this coat off. She did this very quickly, and stuffed it down the front of her dress.
Sometimes – times like now – when I think of those two kisses, it is as though I can actually feel them.
One on the forehead.
One on the cheek.
What happened next is less clear in my mind because it has merged into so many other memories, been played out in so many other ways that I can’t separate the real from the imagined, or even be sure there is a difference. So I don’t know exactly when she started to cry, or if she was crying already. And I don’t know if she hesitated before throwing the last handful of dirt. But I do know by the time the doll was covered, and the earth patted down, she was bent over, clutching the yellow coat to her chest, and weeping.
When you’re a nine-year-old boy, it’s no easy thing to comfort a girl. Especially if you don’t know her, or even what the matter is.
I gave it my best shot.
Intending to rest my arm lightly across her shoulders – the way Dad did to Mum when we took family walks – I shuffled forward, where in a moment of indecision I couldn’t commit either to kneeling beside her or staying standing. I hovered awkwardly between the two, then overbalanced, toppling in slow motion, so the first this weeping girl was aware of me, was the entire weight of my body, gently pushing her face into a freshly dug grave. I still don’t know what I should have said to make things better, and I’ve thought about this a lot. But lying beside her with the tips of our noses nearly touching, I tried, ‘I’m Matthew. What’s your name?’
She didn’t answer straight away. She tilted her head to get a better look at me, and as she did that I felt a single strand of her long hair slip quickly across the side of my tongue, leaving my mouth at the corner. ‘I’m Annabelle,’ she said.
Her name was Annabelle.
The girl with the red hair and a face flecked in hundreds of freckles is called Annabelle. Try and remember that if you can. Hold onto it through everything else that happens in life, through all the things that might make you want to forget – keep it safe somewhere.
I stood up. The dressing on my knee was now a dirty brown. I started to say we were playing hide-and-seek, that she could play too if she wanted. But she interrupted. She spoke calmly, not sounding angry or upset. And what she said was, ‘You’re not welcome here any more, Matthew.’
She didn’t look at me, she drew herself onto her hands and knees and focused on the small pile of loose earth – patting it neat again, making it perfect. ‘This is my daddy’s caravan park. I live here, and you’re not welcome. Go home.’
She was upright in an instant, moving towards me with her chest puffed out, like a small animal trying to look bigger. She said it again, ‘Get lost, I told you. You’re not welcome.’
A seagull laughed mockingly, and Annabelle shouted, ‘You’ve ruined everything.’
It was too late to explain. By the time I reached the footpath, she was kneeling on the ground again, the little yellow doll’s coat held to her face.
The other children were shouting out, calling to be found. But I didn’t look for them. Past the shower blocks, past the shop, cutting through the park – I ran as fast as I could, my flip-flops slapping on the hot tarmac. I didn’t let myself stop, I didn’t even let myself slow down until I was close enough to our caravan to see Mum sitting out on the deckchair. She was wearing her straw sun hat, and looking out to the sea. She smiled and waved at me, but I knew I was still in her bad books. We’d sort of fallen out a few days before. It’s stupid because it was only really me who got hurt, and the scabs were nearly healed now, but my parents sometimes find it hard to let stuff go.
Mum in particular, she holds grudges.
I guess I do too.
I’ll tell you what happened because it will be a good way to introduce my brother. His name’s Simon. I think you’re going to like him. I really do. But in a couple of pages he’ll be dead. And he was never the same after that.
When we arrived at Ocean Cove Holiday Park – bored from the journey, and desperate to explore – we were told it was okay for us to go anywhere in the site, but were forbidden from going to the beach by ourselves because of how steep and uneven the path is. And because you have to go onto the main road for a bit to get to the top of it. Our parents were the kind to worry about that sort of thing – about steep paths and main roads. I decided to go to the beach anyway. I often did things that I wasn’t allowed to do, and my brother would follow. If I hadn’t decided to name this part of my story the girl and her doll then I could have named it, the shock of the fall and the blood on my knee because that was important too.
There was the shock of the fall and the blood on my knee. I’ve never been good with pain. This is something I hate about myself. I’m a total wimp. By the time Simon caught up with me, at the twist in the path where exposed roots snare unsuspecting ankles – I was wailing like a baby.
He looked so worried it was almost funny. He had a big round face, which was forever smiling and made me think of the moon. But suddenly he looked so fucking worried.
This is what Simon did. He collected me in his arms and carried me step-by-step back up the cliff path, and the quarter of a mile or so to our caravan. He did that for me.
I think a couple of adults tried to help, but the thing you need to know about Simon is that he was a bit different from most people you might meet. He went to a special school where they were taught basic stuff like not talking to strangers, so whenever he felt unsure of himself or panicked, he would retreat to these lessons to feel safe. That’s the way he worked.
He carried me all by himself. But he wasn’t strong. This was a symptom of his disorder, a weakness of the muscles. It has a name that I can’t think of now, but I’ll look it up if I get the chance. It meant that the walk half killed him. So when we got back to the caravan he had to spend the rest of the day in bed.
Here are the three things I remember most clearly from when Simon carried me:
- The way my chin banged against his shoulder as he walked. I worried that I was hurting him, but I was too wrapped up in my own pain to say anything.
- So I kissed his shoulder better, in the way that when you’re little you believe this actually works. I don’t think he noticed though, because my chin was banging against him with every step, and when I kissed him, my teeth banged instead, which, if anything, probably hurt more.
- Shhh, shhh. It’ll be okay. That’s what he said as he placed me down outside our caravan, before running in to get Mum. I might not have been clear enough – Simon really wasn’t strong. Carrying me like that was the hardest thing he’d ever done, but still he tried to reassure me. Shhh, shhh. It’ll be okay. He sounded so grown-up, so gentle and certain. For the first time in my life it truly felt like I had a big brother. In the few short seconds whilst I waited for Mum to come out, as I cradled my knee, stared at the dirt and grit in the skin, convinced myself I could see the bone, in those few short seconds – I felt totally safe.
Mum cleaned and dressed the wound, then she shouted at me for putting Simon in such a horrible position. Dad shouted at me too. At one point they were both shouting together, so that I wasn’t even sure who to look at. This was the way it worked. Even though my brother was three years older, it was always me who was responsible for everything. I often resented him for that. But not this time. This time he was my hero.
So that’s my story to introduce Simon. And it’s also the reason I was still in Mum’s bad books as I arrived, breathless, at our caravan, trying to make sense of what had happened with the small girl and her cloth doll.
‘Sweetheart, you’re ashen.’
She’s always calling me ashen, my mum. These days she calls me it all the time. But I forgot she said it way back then too. I completely forgot that she’s always called me ashen.
‘I’m sorry about the other day, Mum.’ And I was sorry. I’d been thinking about it a lot. About how Simon had to carry me, and how worried he had looked.
‘It’s okay, sweetheart. We’re on holiday. Try and enjoy yourself. Your dad went down to the beach with Simon, they’ve taken the kite. Shall we join them?’
‘I think I’m going to stay in for a bit. It’s hot out. I think I’m going to watch some telly.’
‘On a lovely day like today? Honestly, Matthew. What are we going to do with you?’
She sort of asked that in a friendly way, as though she didn’t really feel a need to do anything with me. She could be nice like that. She could definitely be nice like that.
‘I don’t know Mum. Sorry about the other day. Sorry about everything.’
‘It’s forgotten sweetheart, really.’
‘I promise. Let’s go and fly that kite, shall we?’
‘I don’t feel like it.’
‘You’re not watching telly, Matt.’
‘I’m in the middle of a game of hide-and-seek.’
‘No. I’m seeking. I should do that really.’
But the other children had got bored of waiting to be found, and had broken off into smaller groups, and other games. I didn’t feel like playing anyway. So I wandered around for a bit, and I found myself back at the place where the girl had been. Only she wasn’t there any more. There was just the small mound of earth, now carefully decorated with a few picked buttercups and daisies, and – to mark the spot – two sticks, placed neatly in a cross.
I felt very sad. And I feel a bit sad even thinking about it. Anyway, I have to go. Jeanette from Art Group’s doing her nervous bird impression; fluttering around at the top of the corridor, trying to catch my attention.
That paper-mache won’t make itself. I have to go.
You can Reserve & Collect The Shock of the Fall from your local Waterstones bookshop (http://bit.ly/MqYgxE), buy it online at Waterstones.com (http://bit.ly/MqYbtT) or download it in ePub format (http://bit.ly/MqYkgL)