Read the opening of Sally Green‘s debut novel, Half Bad…
There’s these two kids, boys, sitting close together, squished in by the big arms of an old chair. You’re the one on the left.
The other boy’s warm to lean close to, and he moves his gaze from the telly to you, sort of in slow motion.
‘You enjoying it?’ he asks.
You nod. He puts his arm round you and turns back to the screen.
Afterwards you both want to try the thing in the film. You sneak the big box of matches from the kitchen drawer and run with them to the woods.
You go first. You light the match and hold it between your thumb and forefinger letting it burn right down until it goes out. Your fingers are burnt, but they hold the blackened match.
The trick works.
The other boy tries it too. Only he doesn’t do it. He drops the match.
Then you wake up and remember where you are.
The trick is to not mind. Not mind about it hurting, not mind about anything.
The trick of not minding is key, it’s the only trick in town. Only this is not a town, it’s a cage, beside a cottage, surrounded by a load of hills and trees and sky.
It’s a one-trick cage.
The routine is okay.
Waking up to sky and air is okay. Waking up to the cage and the shackles is what it is. You can’t let the cage get to you. The shackles rub, but healing is quick and easy, so what’s to mind?
The cage is loads better now that the sheepskins are in. Even when they’re damp they’re warm. The tarpaulin over the north end made a big improvement too. There’s shelter from the worst of the wind and rain. And a bit of shade if it’s hot and sunny. Joke! You’ve got to keep your sense of humour too.
So the routine is to wake-up as the sky lightens before dawn. You don’t have to move a muscle, don’t even have to open your eyes to know it’s getting light, and you can just lie there and take it all in.
The best bit of the day.
There aren’t many birds around, a few, not many. It would be good to know their names, but you know their different calls. There are no seagulls, which is something to think about, and there are no vapour trails either. The wind is usually quiet in the pre-dawn calm, and somehow the air feels warmer already as it gets light.
You can open your eyes now and there’s a few minutes to savour the sunrise, which today is a thin pink line stretching along the top of a narrow ribbon of cloud draped over the smudged green hills. And you’ve still got a minute, maybe even two, to get your head together before she appears.
You’ve got to have a plan though, and the best idea is to have it all worked out the night before so you can slip straight into the plan without a thought. Mostly the plan is to do what you’re told, but not everyday, and not today.
You wait until she appears and throws you the keys. You catch the keys, unlock your ankles, rub them to emphasise the pain she is inflicting, unlock your left manacle, unlock your right, stand, unlock the cage door, toss the keys back to her, open the cage door, step out keeping your head down, never look her in the eyes (unless that’s part of some other plan), rub your back and maybe groan a bit, walk to the vegetable bed, piss.
Sometimes she tries to mess with your head of course, by changing the routine. Sometimes she wants chores before exercises, but most days its press-ups first. You’ll know which whilst still zipping up.
She says it quietly. She knows you’re listening.
You take your time as usual. That’s always part of the plan.
Make her wait.
Rub your right arm. The metal wristband cuts into it when the shackle is on. You heal it and get a faint buzz. Then, you roll your head, your shoulders, your head again, and stand there, just stand there for another second or two, pushing her to her limit, before you drop to the ground.
is the trick.
But there are
On the look-out
all the time.
All the time.
Cos there ain’t
Look out for what?
Cos she makes
And if that
for the next one
and the next one
and the next one.
You get up. She will have been counting, but never letting up is another tactic.
She doesn’t say anything but steps towards you and backhands you across the face.
After press-ups it’s just standing and waiting. Best look at the ground. You’re by the cage on the path. It’s got mud on it, but you won’t be sweeping it, not today, not with this plan. It’s rained a lot in the last few days. Autumn’s coming on fast. Still, today it’s not raining, already it’s going well.
‘Do the outer circuit.’ Again she’s quiet. No need to raise her voice.
And off you jog… but not yet. You’ve got to keep her thinking you’re being your usual difficult-yet-basically-complying self, and so you knock mud off your boots, left boot heel on right toe followed by right boot heel on left toe, you raise a hand and look up and around as if you’re assessing the wind direction, you spit on the potato plants, look left and right like you’re waiting for a gap in the traffic and… let the bus go past… and then you’re off.
You take the dry-stone wall with a leap to the top and over, then across the moorland, heading to the trees.
But you’ve got the plan and you’ve learnt a lot in four months. The fastest that you’ve done the outer circuit for her is forty-five minutes. You can do it in forty though, cos you stop by the stream at the far end and rest and drink and listen and look and once you managed to get to the ridge and see over to more hills, more trees, and a loch (it might be a lake, but something about the heather and the length of summer days says loch).
Today the plan is to speed up when you’re out of sight. That’s easy. Easy. The diet you’re on is great. You have to give her some credit, cos you are super healthy, super fit. Meat, veg, more meat, more veg, and don’t forget plenty of fresh air. Oh this is the life.
You’re doing okay. Keeping up a good pace. Your top pace.
And you’re buzzing, self-healing from her little slap, and it’s giving you a little buzz, buzz, buzz.
You’re already at the far end of the circuit, where you could cut back to do the inner circuit which is really half the circuit. But she didn’t want the inner circuit and you were going to do the outer whatever she said.
That’s got to be the fastest yet.
Then up to the ridge.
And let gravity take you down in long strides to the stream that leads to the loch.
Now it gets tricky. Now you are outside the area of the circuit, and soon you will be well outside it. She won’t know that you’ve gone until you’re late. That gives you twenty-five minutes from leaving the circuit, maybe thirty, maybe thirty-five, but call it twenty-five before she’s after you.
But she’s not the problem, the wristband is the problem. It will break open when you go too far. How it works, witchcraft or science or both, you don’t know, but it will break open. She told you that on Day One and she told you the wristband contains a liquid, an acid. The liquid will be released if you stray too far, and this liquid will burn right through your wrist. ‘It’ll take your hand off,’ was how she put it.
Going downhill now. There’s a click… and the burning starts.
But you’ve got your plan.
You stop and submerge your wrist in the stream. The stream hisses, but the water helps… although it’s a strange sort of gloopy, sticky potion and won’t wash away easily… and more will come out, and you have to keep going.
You pad the band out with wet moss and peat. Dunk it under. Stuff more in. It’s taking too long. Get going.
Follow the stream.
The trick is not to mind about your wrist. Your legs feel fine. Covering lots of ground.
And anyway losing a hand isn’t that bad. You can replace it with something good… a hook… or a three pronged claw like the guy in ‘Enter The Dragon’… or maybe something with blades that can be retracted, but when you fight out they come… ker-ching… or flames even… no way are you going to have a fake hand… that’s for sure… no way.
Your head’s dizzy. Buzzing too though. Your body is trying to heal your wrist. You never know, you might get out of this with two hands. Still, the trick is not to mind. Either way you’re out.
Got to stop. Douse it in the stream, put some new peat in and get going again.
Nearly at the loch.
Oh yes. Bloody cold.
You’re too slow. Wading is slow but it’s good to keep your arm in the water.
Just keep going.
It’s a bloody big loch. But that’s okay. Means your hand will be in water longer. The bigger the better.
Feeling sick… ughhh…
Shit, that hand looks a mess. But the acid has stopped coming out. You’re going to get out of here. You’ve beaten her. You can find Mercury and you will get three gifts.
But you’ve got to keep going.
You’ll be at the end of the loch in a minute.
Doing well. Doing well.
Not far now.
Soon be able to see over into the valley, and –
‘You nearly lost your hand.’
It’s lying on the kitchen table still attached to your arm by bone, muscle and sinew that are visible in the open, raw groove around your wrist. The skin that used to be there has formed lava like rivulets, running down to your fingers like the skin has melted and set again. The whole thing is puffing up nicely and hurts like a… well like an acid burn. Your fingers twitch, but your thumb is not working.
‘It might heal so that you can use your fingers. Or it might not.’
She took the band off your wrist at the loch and sprayed the wound with a lotion that dulled the pain.
She was prepared. She’s always prepared.
And how did she get there so quick? Did she run? Fly on a bloody broomstick?
However she got to the loch you still had to walk back with her. That was a tough walk.
‘Why don’t you speak to me?’
She’s right in your face.
‘I’m here to teach you, Nathan. But you must stop trying to escape.’
She’s so ugly that you’ve got to turn away.
There’s an ironing board set up the other side of the kitchen table.
She was ironing? Ironing her combat trousers?
‘Nathan. Look at me.’
You keep your eyes on the iron.
‘I want to help you, Nathan.’
You hawk up a huge gob, turn and spit. She’s quick though and snatches back so it lands on her shirt not on her face.
She doesn’t hit you. Which is new.
‘You need to eat. I’ll heat up some stew.’
That’s new too. Usually you have to cook and clean and sweep.
You’ve never had to iron though.
She goes to the pantry. There’s no fridge. No electricity. There’s a wood burning range. Setting the fire up, cleaning it out are also your chores.
Whilst she’s in the pantry you go to look at the iron. You’re legs are weak, unsteady, but your head’s clear. Clear enough. A sip of water might help, but you want to look at the iron. It’s just a piece of metal, iron shaped, with a metal handle, old. It’s heavy and cold. It must be heated up on the range to do its job. Must take ages. She’s miles from anywhere and anything, and she irons her trousers and shirts!
When she comes back a few seconds later you’re round by the pantry door and you bring the iron down hard, pointed side down, against her head.
But she’s so bloody tall and so bloody fast. The iron catches the side of her scalp and sinks into her shoulder.
You’re on the floor clutching your ears, looking at her boots before you pass out.
The Trick Doesn’t Work
She’s talking, but you can’t make sense of it.
You’re back sitting at the kitchen table, sweating and shuddering a bit, and blood from your left ear is running down your neck. That ear won’t heal. You can’t hear at all on that side. And your nose is a mess. You must have landed on it when you fell. It’s broken, blocked up and bloodied, and it won’t heal either.
Your hand is resting on the table and it’s so swollen now that the fingers can’t move at all.
She’s sitting on the chair next to you and is spraying your wrist with the lotion again. It’s cooling. Numbing.
And it would be so good to be numb like that all over… numb to it all. But that won’t happen. What will happen is that she’ll lock you back up in the cage… chain you up… and it’ll go on and on and on…
And so the trick doesn’t work. It doesn’t work and you do mind, you mind about it all, and you don’t want to be back in that cage, and you don’t want the trick any more. You don’t want any of it any more.
The cut on her scalp is healed, but there’s a wide ridge of a black-red scab between her blonde hair and there’s blood on her shoulder. She’s still talking about something, her fat, slobbering lips working away.
You look around the room. The kitchen sink, the window that overlooks the vegetable garden and the cage, the range, the ironing board, the door to the pantry and back to the ugly woman with nicely pressed trousers. And her clean boots. And in her boot is her little knife. She sometimes keeps it there. You saw it when you were on the floor.
You’re dizzy, so it’s easy to swoon, sinking to your knees. She grabs you by your armpits, but your left hand isn’t injured and it finds the handle and slides the knife out of her boot whilst she grapples with your dead weight and as you let your body sink further you bring the blade to your jugular. Fast and hard.
But she’s so bloody quick, and you kick and fight and fight and kick, but she gets the knife off you and you’ve no kick and no fight left at all.
Back in the cage. Shackled. Kept waking up last night… sweating… ear still doesn’t work… your breathing through your mouth cos your nose is blocked. She’s even chained your bad wrist, and your whole arm is so swollen that the shackle is tight.
It’s late morning, but she still hasn’t come for you. She’s doing something in the cottage. Tapping. Smoke’s coming out of the chimney.
It’s warm today, a breeze from the south-west, clouds moving silently across the sky so the sun is managing a series of appearances, touching your cheek and casting shadows from the bars across your legs. But you’ve seen it all before, so you close your eyes and remember stuff. It’s okay to do that sometimes.
Taken from Half Bad by Sally Green
You can Reserve & Collect Half Bad from your local Waterstones bookshop (http://bit.ly/1k74y3t), buy it online at Waterstones.com (http://bit.ly/1mvFvpk) or download it in ePub format (http://bit.ly/1hWYshG)