Sarah Alexander’s debut novel, The Art of Not Breathing was released on April 1st and is available to purchase here. She shares her first chapter with us as part of our published alumni series. Sarah talks about the novel and her writing experiences in interview which you can read on the Birkbeck Website.
ELSIE: Why did the lobster blush?
EDDIE: I don’t know.
ELSIE: Because the seaweed!
The thing I hate most about my father is that he hates me.
And he has good reason to.
It’s something we don’t talk about.
He has pale blue, cold eyes that are one minute full of hate, the next full of so much sadness that I pity him. And I can’t stand to feel sorry for him. When I look at him I get this sensation in my throat that feels as though maggots are crawling about in there. The only way to get rid of the itching is to hold my breath and swallow until I almost pass out. The best thing to do is not look at his face or eyes, or better still not look at him at all.
Fortunately, he’s hardly ever home. He’s either out running so that the village women can drool over his “chiselled jaw”, or he’s at the bank where he works in Inverness, or travelling about Scotland selling loans. You’d think he loved his job, the amount of time he spends doing it, but he grumbles that his clients only care about cars or TVs and not about the terrible wars and disasters that happen around the world. “Never mind the rain on the Black Isle,” he says. “What about remote villages that flood every year?” Or, “Thousands of people die every day from mosquito bites in some countries.” He says this one a lot when it’s midge season here and I’m complaining about them. (The midges love my blood.)
My mum tells him, “Do let us know when you’ve found a cure for malaria, Colin. In the meantime, your son needs study books for his exams and your daughter has grown out of another school uniform.” I wish she didn’t use my weight as a way of getting his attention. Why can’t she say the gas bill needs paying or the damp in my room wants sorting?
In the drawer by his bed is an atlas covered in ink; the blue dots places he’s been to, the red ones places he’s desperate to go. There’s a massive red dot on Australia – he pressed the pen so hard there’s ink on the next page, right in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. He nearly made it to Australia once, when he was twenty and had a job as a singer on a cruise ship. When we kids were small he told us bedtime stories about his travels, his voice smooth and soft like melted chocolate. His favourite story was the one about the port in Jakarta. The weather was thundery and the cruise ship had just left the port, next stop Australia, when he received the call to say that Dillon, my older brother, had been born. He used to say, “I was so surprised, I nearly fell overboard, but then I jumped off anyway and swam to shore.”
Mum says this isn’t true, that he wanted to stay on the ship. I often wonder what life would be like if he had stayed on that ship. Or if he’d actually fallen overboard.
I’ve picked up a few snippets about my parents’ life before I was born, mostly from Granny before she died (and before she fell out with Mum). My parents moved into our house on McKellen Drive, the cheapest house in Fortrose – and probably on the whole of the Black Isle – when Dillon was a few months old. It was cheap because the walls were crumbling and it backed onto a cemetery. My father wanted to work on the ship for a few more months so they could afford to move to Inverness, but Mum wouldn’t let him go away again. She didn’t think he’d come back.
Instead, he tried to make money by singing in pubs around Inverness. The house never got fixed and the bills never got paid.
When yet another FINAL WARNING arrived in the post and Mum was hormonal and pregnant again, she marched my father to the nearest bank and made him fill in an application form to be a bank clerk. (This is how he describes it.) When he’d finally made enough money, we packed up ready to move to the city. We kids had a box each with our names on, full of our clothes and toys. But then everything changed.
My brother disappeared.
“How can I leave all these people,” Mum said, staring out of my bedroom window at the headstones in the cemetery on the day we were supposed to move, “when my son is one of them?”
It wasn’t strictly true – there’s a headstone with his name on it but my brother isn’t buried anywhere.
We didn’t unpack his box. Mum taped it up good and proper so nothing could fall out. I think about his toys in the loft sometimes: a grey furry dolphin called Gordon that my father bought for him after he’d had a tantrum at the Dolphin and Seal Centre; a wooden xylophone; an Etch-a-Sketch with his name on it in wonky black lines – he would cry if it got scrubbed off; handfuls of pine needles that he’d collected (the dead ones because they were softer than the spiky green ones – they’ve probably turned into compost now). I try not to think of his clothes, all folded up, damp and creased. It just reminds me that he’s not in them. Instead, I imagine my own clothes all folded up. One day, I suppose someone else will have to try not to think about that.