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The Outcast

Jones, Sadie

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The village was asleep, with all the people behind the walls and through the windows and up the stairs of the little houses blind and deaf in their beds while anything might happen. Lewis headed down the middle of the road and he kept falling and had to remember to get back on his feet.

He reached the churchyard and stood in the dark with the church even darker above him.

–from The Outcast by Sadie Jones


It’s 1957. Nineteen-year-old Lewis Aldridge is returning by train to his home in Waterford where he has just served a two-year prison term for a crime that shocked the sleepy Surrey community. Wearing a new suit, he carries money his father Gilbert sent — to keep him away, he suspects — and a straight razor. No one greets him at the station.

Twelve years earlier, seven-year-old Lewis and his spirited mother Elizabeth are on the same train, bringing Gilbert home from war. Waterford is experiencing many such reunions, alcohol lubricating awkward homecomings and community gatherings. The most oppressive of these are the mandatory holiday parties hosted by the town’s leading industrialist Dicky Carmichael, Gilbert’s employer. With the Carmichael estate backing onto the Aldridge property, the attractive and popular Tamsin Carmichael and her precocious kid sister Kit are Lewis’s playmates, along with a gaggle of neighbourhood boys who (like Lewis) are fascinated by Tamsin. The children play thrilling and cruel games, mirroring the adults’ inebriated dysfunction.

Though pleased to be reunited with Elizabeth, Gilbert is appalled by the coddling his son has received in his absence. No longer permitted to skip church for picnics by the river, Elizabeth and Lewis are steered back under the ever-judgmental gaze of Waterford society. Lewis continues to flourish, a naturally capable golden child. But iconoclastic Elizabeth, disappointed by Gilbert’s insistence on conformity, seeks refuge in the bottle.

Then a sunny riverside picnic ends with Elizabeth dead and ten-year-old Lewis the only witness. A shattered Gilbert is incapable of providing comfort to his young son and the community of Waterford turns away from the traumatized child, now rendered a pariah by tragedy. Lewis is sent to boarding school, summoned home only for holidays. Gilbert remarries five months later to Alice, a compliant beauty who is not up to the task of parenting a damaged child.

Years pass and Lewis, now a troubled teenager, is lost in dangerous and self-harming behaviours. When an incident with a local bully causes Lewis to be even further estranged from the community, Gilbert and Alice stand idly by as Lewis is tormented by the tyrannical Dicky. Enraged, Lewis commits a shocking crime against the whole of Waterford and is sent to prison.

Two years later, upon his shamed return, the town continues to treat Lewis as an outcast. Only Tamsin’s little sister Kit, now a young woman, sees in him the golden boy he once was. She had become infatuated with Lewis years earlier when he had casually protected her from bullies and broken bicycle chains. But she now faces a much darker and more dangerous sort of bullying at the hands of her father. It is up to Lewis once again to rescue her, redeeming himself through tremendous courage and terrible sacrifice. And perhaps Kit holds the power to rescue him, too.

Winner of the Costa First Novel Award and a finalist for the prestigious Orange Prize, Sadie Jones’s The Outcast introduces us to a clear and brave new voice in British fiction. The novel is a clarion call to us all, daring us to stand up to the bullies of our world, in whatever form they may take and — above all else — to love our children.


From the Hardcover edition.

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About the Author:

Sadie Jones was born in London, England, to a Jamaican-born writer and a London-born actress. Jones spent years traveling, working as a waitress and teaching English as a foreign language, before returning to London to work in various filmmaking roles. She then became a screenwriter, a vocation she practised for 15 years, writing for BBC television and feature films. The Outcast, published in 2008, is her first novel. For it she won the Costa First Novel Award and was a finalist for the Orange Prize. Jones is married to the architect Tim Boyd and they have two children.

About her drive to write The Outcast, Jones says, “It is often said that everybody has a novel in them. Until I wrote The Outcast — compelled to write, as I was — I thought I was an exception this rule. Perhaps I needed a book with enough life to it, that demanded to be written, or perhaps I was simply learning the hard way how to tell stories, I don’t know; in many ways it’s a mystery to me.”


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

1945


Gilbert was demobbed in November and Elizabeth took Lewis up to London to meet him at the Charing Cross Hotel. Lewis was seven. Elizabeth and he got onto the train at Waterford and she held his hand firmly so that he wouldn’t fall when he climbed up the high step. Lewis sat next to the window and opposite her, to watch the station get small as they pulled away, and Elizabeth took off her hat so that she could rest her head against the seat without it getting in the way.The seat was itchy against Lewis’s bare legs between his shorts and his socks and he liked the way it was uncomfortable and the way the train moved from side to side.There was a feeling of specialness; his mother was quiet with it and it changed the way everything looked.They had a secret between them and they didn’t need to talk about it. He looked out of the window and wondered again if his father would be wearing his uniform and, if he were, if he would have a gun. He wondered, if he did have a gun, if he would let Lewis hold it. Lewis thought probably not. His father probably wouldn’t have one, and if he did it would be too dangerous and Lewis wouldn’t be allowed to play with it.The clouds were very low over the fields, so that everything looked close up and flat. Lewis thought it was possible that the train might be standing still and the fields and houses and sky might be rushing past. That would mean his father would be rushing towards him standing in the Charing Cross Hotel, but then all the people would fall over. He thought he might feel sick, so he looked over at his mother. She was looking straight ahead, as if she was watching something lovely. She was smiling so he pushed her leg with his foot so that she would smile at him, and she did, and he looked back out of the window. He couldn’t remember if he’d had lunch or what time of day it was. He tried to remember breakfast. He remembered going to bed the night before and his mother kissing him and saying, ‘We’ll see Daddy tomorrow’, and the way his stomach had felt suddenly. It felt that way now. His mother called it butterflies, but it wasn’t like that, it was more just suddenly knowing you had a stomach, when normally you forgot. He decided if he sat and thought about his father and his stomach any more he’d definitely feel sick.

‘Can I go for a walk?’ he asked.

‘Yes, you can go for a walk. Don’t touch the doors and don’t lean out. How will you know where to find me again?’

He looked around,‘G’.

‘Carriage G.’

He couldn’t open the door; it was heavy and they both fought with it. She held it open for him and he went down the corridor, one hand on the window side, the other on the compartment side, steadying himself and saying under his breath,‘along-along-along’.

After Elizabeth had spoken to Gilbert on the telephone the day before, she had sat on the chair in the hall and cried. She cried so much that she’d had to go upstairs so that Jane wouldn’t see her, or Lewis, if he came in from the garden. She had cried much more than any time they had parted since he had first gone away and more than she had in May when they heard the war in Europe had ended. Now she felt very calm and as if it was normal to be going to see your husband whom you had been frightened might die almost every day for four years. She looked down at the clasp on her new bag and thought about all the other women seeing their husbands again and buying handbags that wouldn’t be noticed. Lewis appeared through the glass, struggling with the door, and she let him in and he smiled at her and stood balancing with his arms out.

‘Look –’

He had his mouth open with the effort of not falling over and his tongue to one side. One of his socks was down. His fingers were each stretching out. Elizabeth loved him and missed a breath with loving him. She grabbed him around the middle.

‘Don’t! I wasn’t falling!’

‘I know you weren’t, I just wanted to give you a hug.’

‘Mummy!’

‘Sorry, darling, you balance.’ She let go, and Lewis went back to balancing.

They took a taxi from Victoria to Charing Cross and they looked out at the buildings, and the big holes where buildings had been.There was much more sky than there had been and the gaps looked more real than the buildings, which were like afterthoughts. There were lots of people on the pavements and the road was crowded with cars and buses.The weather made it look as if the broken buildings and people’s coats and hats and the grey sky were all joined together in greyness except for the blowing autumn leaves, which were quite bright.

‘Here we are,’ said Elizabeth, and the taxi pulled over. Lewis scraped his calf climbing out of the taxi and didn’t feel it because he was looking up at the hotel and seeing all the men going in and out and thinking that one of them might be his father.

‘I’m meeting my husband in the bar.’

‘Yes, madam. Follow me.’

Lewis held Elizabeth’s hand and they followed the man.The hotel was vast and dim and shabby.There were men in uniform everywhere and people greeting each other and the air was full of smoke. Gilbert was sitting in a corner by a tall, dirty window. He was in his uniform, and greatcoat, and he was smoking a cigarette and scanning the crowds outside on the pavement. Elizabeth saw him before he saw her and she stopped.

‘Do you see your party, madam?’

‘Yes, thank you.’

Lewis pulled her hand,‘Where? Where?’

Elizabeth watched Gilbert and she thought, I should hold this moment. I should remember this. I will remember this all my life. Then he looked up and saw her. There was a moment of blankness and then a smile and from then she wasn’t on her own in her head any more, she was with him. He crushed his cigarette into the ashtray and got up and went over to her. She let go of Lewis’s hand. They kissed, embraced clumsily, and then allowed each other to be very close, quickly.

‘God, we can get you out of this bloody uniform –’

‘Lizzie, you’re here –’

‘We’ll burn it, ritually.’

‘Don’t be treasonous.’

Lewis looked up at his mother and father holding each other. His hand felt strange where she had let go of it. He waited.They stood apart and Gilbert looked down at Lewis.

‘Hello, little chap!’

Lewis looked up at his father and he had so many thoughts in his mind that his face went blank.

‘Aren’t you going to say hello?’

‘Hello.’

‘What? Can’t hear you!’

‘Hello.’

‘Shake hands then!’

Lewis held out his hand.They shook hands.

‘He’s been so excited, Gilbert. He’s been full of things to ask. He’s talked of nothing else.’

‘We can’t stand here all day. Shall we get out of this ghastly place? What do you want? What shall we do?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Are you going to cry?’

Lewis looked up at Elizabeth in alarm. Why would she cry?

‘No. I’m not going to. We could have some lunch.’

‘Well, not here. Come on, I’ll get my things. Wait.’

He went over to the table where he’d been sitting and picked up his kit bag and another bag. Lewis held tightly to his mother. She squeezed his hand.They still had their secret, she was still with him.

They went for lunch and a huge fuss was made about the chops, which were small and brown, in the middle of a large silver plate. Lewis thought he wasn’t hungry and ate enormously. He watched his parents talking.They talked about the housekeeper, Jane, and whether or not her cooking was tolerable.They talked about the roses Elizabeth had just planted and that there was going to be a big Christmas party at the Carmichaels. Lewis thought he would explode with boredom and his insides would splash all over the walls and onto the waiter’s white jacket. He tapped his father’s arm.

‘Excuse me, sir.’

His father didn’t look at him.

‘I’ll get the train, I should think . . .’

Lewis thought he hadn’t heard.

‘Excuse me, sir . . . Excuse me.’

‘Do answer him, Gilbert.’

‘Lewis?’

‘Was it very hot in the desert?’

‘Very.’

‘Were there snakes?’

‘A few.’

‘Did you shoot them?’

‘No.’

‘Were there camels?’

‘Yes. Lots.’

‘Did you ride on any?’

‘No.’

‘Did you shoot lots of people or blow them up?’

‘Lewis, let Daddy eat his lunch.’

‘Shoot them to death, or blow them up?’

‘Lewis, nobody wants to talk about things like that.’

He could see that they didn’t. He thought he’d stick to safe subjects.

‘Do you like chops?’

‘Chops are jolly nice. Don’t you think so?’

‘Not bad. Did they give you chops in the desert?’

‘Not usually.’

‘Jelly?’

‘Talkative, isn’t he?’

‘Not always. He’s excited.’

‘I can see that. Eat your lunch, Lewis, and be quiet, there’s a good chap.’

Lewis had already finished his lunch, but he obeyed the second part, and was quiet.

His room was dark.The curtains were drawn, but a little light came in from the landing and fell across the bed. He could hear the wireless downstairs and his parents’ voices, but he couldn’t hear what they were saying. He wriggled down further into the bed. The sheets were cold. He heard his mother’s step on the stairs. She came in and sat on the edge of the bed.

‘Good night, darling.’

‘Good night.’

She leaned and kissed him. He loved her closeness and the smell of her, but the kiss was a tiny bit wet. He felt further away from her than usual, and not sure what to think about anything.

‘Sit up,’ she said.

She held him and hugged him hard. She stroked his hair. Her blouse was slippery on his face, her skin was warm, and her pearls dug pleasantly into his forehead. Her breath smelled familiarly of cigarettes and what she’d been drinking and her scent was the one she always had. He heard her heart beat and felt absolutely at home.

‘All right?’ she said.

He nodded. She released him and he lay back down.

‘What about Daddy?’ she asked.

‘Now he’s back we can be a proper family.’

‘Yes. Will you try to remember not to go on at him about fighting and things like that? When people have had a difficult time they often don’t want to talk about it. Do you understand? Will you remember, darling?’

Lewis nodded. He didn’t know what she meant, but he loved her confiding in him and asking him to do something for her.

‘Is Daddy going to come and say good night? I can’t remember if he does or not.’

‘I’ll ask him. Go to sleep.’

Lewis lay down and she went away. He lay in the dark and listened to the voices and the music downstairs and waited for his father to come and then he fell asleep, quite quickly, like the light going out of a room when the door is closed.

‘War over? There’s still nothing to bloody wear and nothing to bloody eat!’

‘Lizzie, the boy.’

‘Oh he’s used to bloody.’

‘Lewis, run and play.’

Lewis had been watching them get ready for church. He had often lain on his mother’s bed while she dressed before, but his father didn’t like him in their bedroom so, in the two days he had been back, the doorway had become his in-between place.

‘Lewis! Go.’

Lewis went. He sat on the top stair and picked paint off the banister. He could hear his parents.

‘For God’s sake, Gilbert. Church!’

‘I was brought up with church.’

‘Well, I wasn’t.’

‘No; you and your heathen mother more likely to be dancing around with druids.’

‘How dare you –’

There was a pause, and a small laugh from his mother.They must have been kissing. Lewis got up and trailed down the stairs and out into the drive. He kicked the gravel about for a bit and waited.

The small church was brick and flint and the sky was low, and close to it, and full of clouds. The children ran around in the leaves, scuffing their Sunday shoes, and their parents met and spoke as they always had, but still, not quite as they always had, because every week someone else had come home, and another family was altered, and added to, and showing itself again.

Elizabeth, Gilbert and Lewis left the car and reached the churchyard and Lewis pulled away from his mother and joined the children playing between the graves.The game was catch, the gravestones were safe, and you had to try to get to the tree. The rules kept changing and no-one ever said them out loud. Lewis was one of the smallest boys.There was a boy called Ed Rawlins who was two years older and Lewis raced him for the tree. Ed was ‘It’, but Lewis got away from him and stood against the tree getting his breath and looked down at the church.

He could see the girls playing near their mothers. He could see the Carmichaels greeting his parents. He knew they’d have to go in soon and the thought of the cold and the hard pews was practically unbearable. His parents were standing close together. His father saw him and gestured him over, and he took his hands off the tree to go to him and Ed rushed him from one side.

‘Gotcha!’

‘Didn’t.’

‘Did!’

‘Anyway I’m not playing.’

‘You are!’

He shoved Lewis sideways onto the ground, wanting to get him down, and then he looked around,waiting to be in trouble and to see if Lewis would cry and draw attention. Lewis got up and inspected his slightly grazed hand.

‘Get off,’ he said, and went to his father.

‘Lewis, behave yourself. This is a churchyard, not a schoolyard.’

‘Yes, sir.’ He took his mother’s hand.

‘Hello there, Lewis!’

Lewis looked at the shiny buttons on Dicky Carmichael’s blazer and didn’t like him. He didn’t see why Mr Carmichael got to stay home while his father was away in the war, and he didn’t like that he got to be in charge of everyone, or that he was going to be father’s boss again. Lewis thought his father should be everyone’s boss.

‘Good to have your father home?’

‘Yes, sir.’

With a wink, ‘Maybe we’ll see you at church more often.’ This was a tease directed at his mother and Lewis didn’t say anything. Gilbert laughed loudly.

‘Now I’m back, I’d better get my house in order.’

Lewis looked at his mother; she was smiling her social smile.

‘No more Black Mass?’ she said,‘What will I do?’

Dicky moved away with his wife Claire and they went into the church followed by their two girls, one big and one small, in their double-breasted coats and hats and patent shoes.

‘Do you have to make such tasteless jokes?’ said Gilbert.

‘Yes, I really do, darling.’ Elizabeth kissed his cheek and they went inside.

Church was as bad as it could have been.The only thing bearable was exchanging silly faces with his mother. It seemed to go on for ever and ever. Lewis thought he’d die and slither under the pew in front and rot there. He tried not to fidget. He tried to count the beams in the roof and read his hymn book. He thought about lunch. He thought about the vicar’s ears...

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