Back in the fall of 2012, I taught a brief travel writing class for the City University of Hong Kong's MFA program. One of the other writers at the fall residency was the British novelist James Scudamore, author of The Amnesia Clinic (winner of the 2007 Somerset Maugham Award) and Heliopolis (longlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize). His reading from an excerpt of his then in-progress third novel, Wreaking--which detailed a thief's tactics leading up to a cunning house break-in--mesmerized the audience.
Over the years I've found that a stunning public reading of a story or novel excerpt doesn't necessarily translate its power on the page. Still, after hearing James read I asked him to send Ninth Letter his novel excerpt when he felt the time was right. Happily, he did, and the strategies and suppressed violence of the thief Roland are as powerful on the page as they were when read aloud.
Wreaking has recently been published in the UK, garnering a long list of critical praise. "Sharply hewn, inventively structured and unnervingly written," raved The Observer, while the Spectator declared that, "There can be no doubting the remarkable scope of this writer's imagination, nor the skill of his prose." The Guardian, The Economist, the London Times, and many others have added their own enthusiastic voices.
So, enjoy this coming attraction of James Scudamore's extraordinary new novel.
Roland covers his tracks more carefully than most. Eats his boiled eggs without shelling them. Grinds and devours the bones of chickens along with their flesh. His cigarette ash is always wiped into the thigh of his trouser, and when a roll-up is finished, either he drops the end into his tea and drains the dregs or he extinguishes the coal on his tongue and swallows the scrap of paper and tobacco that remains. It is self-effacement verging on self-erasure: bodily material is chewed up and swallowed wherever possible, be it picked from his nose, bitten from his nails or scratched from his scalp. He carries all he produces away with him, and leaves nothing behind but the absence of things, and a faint odor of vinegary sweat and smoke. If he could snatch back the breath he has left hanging in the air of this unseasonably cold April night, then he would.
He advances quickly, with no wasted movement, looking in basements for unlocked windows, laptops on display, anything simple and costly and available. The pavements are largely empty, but a solitary woman up ahead gives him pause. He hangs back for a while so she won't fear he's bearing down on her, then thinks again, speeds up and overtakes. This might have caused her some anxiety--he thinks he can hear her breathing quickening a little as he passes--but it's done now, and he can get on.
The tunnels enable him to bypass much of society, but he wonders sometimes about how he must come across to others, out here in the world. He suspects he is seen for what he is, which is someone stuck in one moment, whose life has left him stranded. A huge, mumbling character in a donkey jacket who busts past people in the street, having powerful, combative discussions with himself as he walks. He might as well have the word AVOID tattooed on his forehead.
He prowls the one of the new residential docks, with its polished glass boxes, its sheet metal units, its sustainable wood flushing. These see-through hives have co-opted and erased the warehouses and factories they replaced, with all their damp and mold and vermin. But rats still own the riverside. They're just as happy among gleaming steel ducts and chipboard electrical cupboards as they were among lime-flaked walls and networks of lead plumbing.
The workers who come home to these buildings don't venture outside unless they have to. Roland watches them from the pavement, soaking in the blue wash of television. They order delivered food and put their feet up. They exhibit themselves to passers-by: their lives, their lamps, their empty shelves. For this lot, the future is dated. Now that everything is possible, there is nothing left to yearn for, so nobody does anything at all. The wave has passed, leaving this: flickering boxes; blank, glowing walls. This version of the end of the world doesn't come with any lively savagery or fire in the streets--only a kind of neutering, a death of desire.
But the old is still there, if you look. Lift the right stone, and the eyes of the old are there, pearl-bright in the grime, meeting your stare, unblinking. Roland loves the old so much that he will sometimes come to himself in the tunnels, touching something, trying to channel its history. He is at an advantage as a thief because he genuinely craves the things he is sent to steal.
With the past in mind he takes a detour past the Boar's Head Cemetery, a death pit uncovered during an extension to the Underground: commuter trains running into piles of prostitutes and plague victims, too damned and too many to be buried in consecrated ground. On the fence, people have affixed ribbons and prayers, many of them laminated against the weather, in memory of those whose bones are packed down there somewhere, while legal action proceeds in a room somewhere to determine whether the stopped yellow diggers that stand nearby can be allowed to resume their work. Roland stops to read some of the messages: In Memory Of All Who Lie In The Hoar's Bed, reads one. Most of the messages are a bit tongue in cheek like that. Written by people who think the past is a theme park.
He is beginning to realize how tired he is, and is just on the verge of giving up for the night, when he spots the torched bag. Even from a few feet away it looks more like rubbish than a possession: something to walk past; an overlooked shape lying crumpled near the edge of a yellow puddle of street light. But some echo of its former life speaks to him, pleading for it to be clocked as a thing of value.
He crosses the pavement and budges the charred concertina shape with the toe of his boot. It looks to have been a man's leather satchel. It creaks and crumbles. It has been rained on, and it smells of ashes, but it's more resistant than he expected. Pointing his foot, he toes open the aperture. The pages of scorched notebooks creak open inside, on which Roland can make out handwritten notes and figures. A pack of business cards protrudes from a dedicated pocket. The fat stainless steel pen glints stubbornly, hanging from what remains of a leather loop. He takes out one of the business cards and looks at the name. He carefully extracts one of the burnt notebooks, and there he finds it: a home address.
"Something always turns up," he says, taking out his mobile, then thinking again and heading for a phone box.
You could almost get nostalgic about the utility of these things: no tiny buttons to diddle, no screens to squint at. Just a tough, black handle that bananas usefully round the face, large enough to be patient with the biggest, most fumbling hands. He unhooks it and punches in the number.
"Mr. Finer? Good evening, sir--I think I've found your bag."
"Have you? Jesus. Er, thank you. Where was it?"
Roland tells him the name of the street.
"Round the corner from where they took it. I was having a drink, looked down and it was gone. Thank you for taking the trouble to call."
"No trouble. It's not all good news, though--the bag's been torched. Burnt up pretty badly. Lighter fluid, or something."
"Is there anything left?"
"I don't know what was in it before, but there are one or two things. Your house keys are still here." Roland flicks them round his index finger, being careful not to touch any glass surface of the phone box.
"That's something, I was going to change the locks. Do you know how much these people charge?"
They make an appointment for nine the next morning. And for tonight, Roland's work is done.
It's early enough, so Roland's first stop is the back-lot of a sprawling supermarket on the way out to the ring road. He turns off the rattling din of the engine and coasts to a halt by some red refuse bins. Sometimes they lock them, sometimes they don't. This chain has a policy of leaving its bins unlocked and stacking the waste food neatly in date order, for those in the know. Roland lifts the domed lid of the bin to check out the lay of the land. Some tired bagged salad. Yesterday's éclairs. And--bingo--three packs of smoked streaky, only two days past.
At this time of day it doesn't take more than an hour to get to Jonny Finer's house, with time for him to park up in a loading bay and breakfast on tea and bacon, and soon Roland's van is parked in a street lined with white stucco mansions bordered by tight banks of box hedge.
He waits, watching the house, until Jonny Finer emerges--a healthy-looking, athletic man in his early forties, carrying a blue holdall that must be the replacement for his satchel--and gets into a broad, maroon 4x4. Roland makes a note of the registration number.
He sits in the van, smoking with the windows closed, flicking ash on to the thighs of his trousers and rubbing it in. He stares at the walls of the house, trying to work out how many people there are inside. The way to proceed here is just to sit like this, calmly, smoking on it. As so often before, a little patience and he gets his reward. He sees what can only be the mother, floating efficiently between a pair of breakfasting children.
Things are accelerating. Things for these people are about to change.
He leaves it another half-hour before calling the house number, in case Jonny Finer has forgotten something. He uses his mobile phone and one of a bag of twenty temporary SIM cards he got from a market stall the week before.
"Mrs. Finer? I work in A&E at St Michael's hospital. Does your husband drive a maroon off-road vehicle? I'm afraid he's been in a serious accident. He's unconscious. Can you get here quickly?"
"Oh God," she says. "Is he okay? What happened?"
"Head injuries are complicated. We'll know more soon. Please don't panic, but if you could get here as soon as possible we'd be grateful. Time may be a factor."
There is a little guilt pang, especially when, after a very short while, he sees Mrs. Finer coming out of the house, looking flinty and strong. Look at her now, coping with it, her set lips the only outward sign that anything is amiss. Her frilly yet sexy blouse. Her tight blue jeans, tucked into her boots to show off her sleek, privately toned calves. She's holding it together beautifully for these children. And yet, at the same time, in there somewhere, she is probably wondering how this moment will impact on their carefully constructed existence, with all its trappings and accessories. All the habits that have become indispensable to them. She's probably already enacting some mental contingency plan. She leads two children to the car, one of whom is trying to finish a piece of toast. And--hallelujah, there it is--she leaves a floppy golden retriever at the door. A totally non-threatening creature, which at the same time precludes the possibility of her setting an alarm. What a waste of that resolve it is to test her like this. If something terrible does happen in the future, she will never again approach it face on, with the determination he can see now. She will always think back to this moment and wonder whether it's for real--whether, this time, disaster has finally come for her and her family. That may happen one day, and, unlike today, her weapons will be rusty, because she won't fully believe it.
But the guilt passes, and soon, when he's certain there is nobody else in the house, Roland parks his van right up in their driveway, takes Jonny Finer's keys out of his pocket and opens the front door.
Nothing hangs suspended like this moment when you're waiting to see if a house is empty. There is a burglar alarm box on the front door, but it's over ten years old and that dog has the run of the place. It comes clattering down from upstairs, pausing when it sees him, panting, and he wonders whether things are about to get interesting. But he manages to lead it into a toilet on the ground floor and shut the door.
There is always the chance of someone else. A cleaner, perhaps? Roland calls out, and there is nothing. Only the close quiet of the Finer house. He shuts the front door behind him and immediately feels he can't breathe. How do people live in these airless places? Nothing but air freshener and carpet cleaner. The stifling cloak of double-glazing: every fart flying round looking for an exit.
Roland never enters a property if he thinks it might be occupied. But even if you think you know where the people are, or aren't, you can be surprised. Once he entered a bedroom and counted not just one, or even two, but three different snores. He stood in the doorway, trying to work out the arrangement. It was only when the third snore rolled smoothly into a snarl that he realized they had a dog on the bed. That was a hasty exit.
There have been other lucky escapes. He once thought he was going to have to thump an old woman in her nightie who met him in her living room at 3 a.m. He had already begun to rationalize to himself why he had to hit her, and to hope he wouldn't have to do it too hard, when she spoke to him without fear.
"Do you have a message for me?" He stared at her. "If not I assume you can let yourself out. I'm very tired."
He only realized after she'd gone that she had assumed he was a ghost.
Mrs. Finer is house-proud: not a mark on one of these surfaces. Not always a good sign. The best stuff is often in the filthiest places. Roland feels his sympathy for her beginning to wane. He never warms to those who are too allergic to dirt, and this looks like the home of the sort of woman who would pursue you everywhere you went with a wet wipe.
Jewelry first, of course. He zips up to the master bedroom, and finds it quickly, on a dressing table. He doesn't linger.
The hallway contains artfully arranged painted and lacquered sticks in a pot. Nothing on the walls of any value, as usual. You sometimes get modern art in a place like this, but this lot are more in the reproduction poster category.
A vibration in his ankle. He reaches into his sock for the phone, which brings Victor's voice into the frame: WHER FUCK U GON ASUME YOUV HT JAKPOT.
He composes a quick reply--on to something back in a few hours.
With one finger he flicks open a box of chocolates on the kitchen table and begins eating them as he wanders round, muttering at the furniture. The chocolates are dense pralines that fill his mouth with a cloying sludge. But he forces through them all anyway as he makes his way around, perusing the strategically deployed antiques of the Finer household. "Occasional table, nineteenth century. Faux paneling. Bureau, Georgian, could be. Credenza, worth a swipe. Heavy though."
A painting on the wall stops him. It's not a particularly good painting, but something about the composition of it gets to him, and it doesn't take him long to work out why. There is water, and woodland, and the hint of a brick-built tower beyond. "You're coming with me," he says.
Within ten minutes the painting is stored carefully in the back of his van along with jewelry and furniture, including a nicely solid oak table. He supplements them with an enormous television that he unscrews from a hinge on the kitchen wall.
He takes one last look round the kitchen before leaving. It's a glass atrium of an extension, with artfully tidied toys. Key clusters and dog leads dangle from a homemade rack with a child's picture on it of a crocodile by a watering hole. The wall is taken up by poster-sized photos of the family, posing on a ski slope. Jonny Finer--dashing, reliable, athletic--at the helm, in the center of the group, holding it together. Look at this Lego man with his model family. This is a man who would be calm in any conceivable storm, grinning with his gleaming teeth, which match the toothpaste white of his sunglasses frames.
Roland goes right up to the photo and eyeballs it. "You died, for a bit, this morning. How did that feel?"
And yes, there's one of them on a boat, as well. The kids, younger here than they were up the ski slope, less self-conscious, less too cool for school, are here laughing delightedly in their lifejackets, while Mr and Mrs. Finer share loving glances and a bottle of white wine. (Who is taking these pictures? Do they travel with an official photographer?) Just look at them. Look at the design involved in it. Who are they trying to sell this to? Themselves? Who's meant to be buying it? What would happen if you just started to tear little bits off it, like old wallpaper?
It is then that Roland sees what's written on the wall. The Finer family keeps a chart of who has grown and when. Who has overtaken whom. It is their one daring concession to spontaneity and untidiness, and it's hidden round a corner, so that guests don't see it when they first walk into the kitchen. So it doesn't spoil the wow factor of this showroom of a place, with its glowing family portraits. Names have been carefully applied to each mark, with gags and comments beside them, the scrawls gaining in confidence and maturity with advancing years:
27th April '04. Watch out Dad! Daisy closing in!
5th March '05. Lily takes off! Must be the spinach.
8th September '10.
Lily chasing Daisy like mad.But what's going on up here? Can Dad be SHRINKING?
1st March '11. Red Letter Day: Daisy overtakes Mum.
Roland pokes around with a finger in the rough ceramic mug of pens in the windowsill, eventually selecting a sharp enough pencil. Positioning himself against the wall he takes the pencil and holds it straight across the top of his own head. His lines come a good foot above any member of the family.
He stands there, breathing, staring at the mark on the wall. Then, from the pot, he takes the blunted stub of a pencil eraser, half a dinosaur, the other half rubbed away leaving only the trunk and the tail. He reaches forward again and rubs out his line. And as he rubs at the mark, erasing his own contribution to the chart, he keeps rubbing, taking away the little increments of Daisy and Lily and all of them, until great worms are shearing off the eraser in his hand, and you can't even make out the indent in the wall where the marks had been. Now there are no marks on the wall. All is clean. And nobody can smugly look back on how they have plotted their advancement. She will probably have got to the hospital by now and found no sign of a brain-injured husband. Her husband, meanwhile, will be sitting waiting for Roland to turn up at the café they agreed on. It won't be too long before one of them phones the other. Roland leaves the empty chocolate box on the kitchen table, places the charred satchel and the house keys neatly beside it, and heads out to the van, whose engine is still ticking over nicely.
James Scudamore is the author of three novels. The Amnesia Clinic won the 2007 Somerset Maugham Award and was shortlisted for four other prizes. Heliopolis was nominated for the 2009 Man Booker Prize. Wreaking (Harvill Secker, UK, 2013) is his most recent book. Watch a trailer for the novel and find out more at jamesscudamore.com