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From Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, A Spot of Bother, and The Red House, nine dazzling stories diverse in style but united in emotional power
The tales in Mark Haddon’s lyrical and uncompromising new collection take many forms—Victorian adventure story, science fiction, morality tale, contemporary realism—but they all showcase his virtuoso gifts as a stylist and the deep well of empathy that made his three bestselling novels so compelling.
The characters here are often isolated physically or estranged from their families, yet they yearn for connection. In aggregate the stories become a meditation on the essential aloneness of the human condition but also on the connections, however tenuous and imperfect, that link people to one another. In the title story, an unnamed narrator describes with cool precision a catastrophe that strikes a seaside town, both tearing lives apart and bringing them together.
In the prizewinning story “The Gun,” a boy’s life is marked by the afternoon he encounters a semiautomatic pistol belonging to his friend’s older brother; in “The Island,” a Greek princess is abandoned on an island by her abductor; in “The Boys Who Left Home to Learn Fear,” a group of adventurers travel deep into the Amazonian jungle but discover the gravest danger lurking among their own number; and in “The Woodpecker and the Wolf,” a woman wonders whether she has chosen to travel to Mars only to escape the entanglement of human relationships back here on Earth.
Drawing inventively from history, myth, folktales, and modern life, The Pier Falls showcases Haddon’s immense gifts of invention and penetrating insight.
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Mark Haddon is the author of the bestselling novels The Red House and A Spot of Bother. His novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction and is the basis for the Tony Award–winning play. He is the author of a collection of poetry, The Talking Horse and the Sad Girl and the Village Under the Sea, has written and illustrated numerous children’s books, and has won awards for both his radio dramas and his television screenplays. He teaches creative writing for the Arvon Foundation and lives in Oxford, England.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
T H E PI E R F A L L S
23 July 1970, the end of the afternoon. A cool breeze off the Chan- nel, a mackerel sky overhead and, far out, a column of sunlight falling onto a trawler as if God had picked it out for some kind of blessing. The upper storeys of the Regency buildings along the front sit above a gaudy rank of coffee houses and fish bars and knick-knack shops with striped awnings selling 99s and dried seahorses in cellophane envelopes. The names of the hotels are writ large in neon and weatherproof paint. The Excelsior, the Camden, the Royal. The word Royal is missing an o.
Gulls wheel and cry. Two thousand people saunter along the prom, some carrying towels and Tizer to the beach, others paus- ing to put a shilling in the telescope or to lean against a balus- trade whose pistachio-green paint has blistered and popped in a hundred years of salt air. A gull picks up a wafer from a dropped ice cream and lifts into the wind.
On the beach a portly woman hammers a windbreak into the sand with the heel of a shoe while a pair of freckled twins build a fort from sand and lolly sticks. The deckchair man is collecting rentals, doling out change from a leather pouch at his hip. “No deeper than your waist,” shouts a father. “Susan? No deeper than your waist.”
The air on the pier is thick with the smell of engine grease and fried onions spooned onto hot dogs. The boys from the ticket booth ride shotgun on the rubber rims of the bumper cars, the contacts scraping and sparking on the live chicken wire nailed to the roof above their heads. A barrel organ plays Strauss waltzes on repeat.
Nine minutes to five. Ozone and sea-sparkle and carnival licence.
This is how it begins.
A rivet fails, one of eight which should clamp the joint between two weight-bearing girders on the western side of the pier. Five have sheared already in heavy January seas earlier this year. There is a faint tremor underfoot as if a suitcase or a step- ladder has been dropped somewhere nearby. No one takes any notice. There are now two rivets holding the tonnage previously supported by eight.
In the aquarium by the marina the dolphins turn in their blue prison.
Twelve and a half minutes later another rivet snaps and a sec- tion of the pier drops by half an inch with a soft thump. People turn to look at one another. The same momentary reduction in weight you feel when a lift starts descending. But the pier is always moving in the wind and the tide, so everyone returns to eating their pineapple fritters and rolling coins into the fruit machines.
The noise, when it comes, is like the noise of a redwood being felled, wood and metal bending and splitting under pressure. Everyone looks at their feet, feeling the hum and judder of the
struts. The noise stops and there is a moment of silence, as if the sea itself were holding its breath. Then, with a peal of biblical thunder, a wide semicircle of walkway is hauled seaward by the weight of the broken girders underneath. A woman and three children standing at the rail drop instantly. Six more people are poured, scrabbling, down the half-crater of shattered wood into the sea. If you look through the black haystack of planks and beams you can see three figures thrashing in the dark water, a fourth floating face-down and a fifth folded over a weed-covered beam. The rest are trapped underwater somewhere. Up on the pier a man hurls five lifebelts one after the other into the sea. Other holidaymakers drop their possessions as they flee so that the walkway is littered with bottles and sunglasses and cardboard cones of chips. A cocker spaniel runs in circles trailing a blue lead.
Two men are helping an elderly lady to her feet when yet more decking gives way beneath them. The shorter, bearded man grabs the claw foot of an iron bench and hangs onto the woman till a teenage boy is able to lean down and help them both up, but the taller man with the braces and the rolled-up shirtsleeves slides down the buckled planking till he is brought to a halt by a spike of broken rail which enters the small of his back. He wriggles like a fish. No one will go down to help him. The slope is too steep, the structure too untrustworthy. A father turns his daughter’s face away.
The men running the big wheel are trying to empty each gondola in turn, but those stuck at the top of the ride are scream- ing and those lower down are unwilling to wait their turn and jump out, some twisting ankles, one breaking a wrist.
On the beach everyone stands and stares at the hole punched into the familiar view. The coloured lights still flash. Faintly they can hear the “Emperor Waltz.” Five men tear off shoes and shirts and trousers and run into the surf.
A line of seven ornamental belvederes runs down the centre of the pier. The western side of this spine is now impassable, so everyone seaward of the fall is squeezing through the bottleneck on the eastern side to reach the turnstiles, the promenade and safety. At the narrowest point people are starting to lose their footing and tumble so that those still upright must either walk on top of them or fall and be trampled in their turn.
Sixty seconds gone, seven people dead, three survivors in the water. The man with the braces and the rolled-up sleeves is still alive but will not be for long. Eight people, three of them children, are being crushed by the crowd pouring over them.
One of the belvederes is listing now, the metal structure being twisted so hard that the twenty-two glass windows explode one after the other.
The pier manager has opened the service gate beside the turn- stiles and escapees are fanning onto the pavement, dishevelled, bloody, wide-eyed. A small boy is being carried in the arms of his father. A teenage girl with a shattered femur sticking through the skin of her right leg is suspended between the shoulders of two men.
The traffic along the promenade comes to a halt and a crowd lines the rails. The whole front is so quiet that everyone hears the noise this time.
Two minutes and twenty seconds. The belvedere falls first, dragging the metal framework and the decking after it. Forty- seven people drop into a threshing machine of spars and beams.
Only six of these people will survive, one of them a boy of six whose parents wrap themselves around him as they fall.
The rubberised wires carrying power along the pier spark like fireworks as they are torn apart. All the lights go out on the end of the pier. The barrel organ wheezes to a halt.
The men swimming out to help are lifted on the small tsunami generated by the mass of broken pier entering the water. It passes under them and heads towards the beach where it sends everyone scurrying above the high-water mark as if it were infected by the event which caused it.
The arcade manager sits in his tiny office at the end of the pier, the dead receiver pressed to his ear. He is twenty-five. He has never even been to London. He has no idea what to do.
The pilot of a twin-engined Cessna 76-D looks down. He can’t believe what he is seeing. He banks and circles the pier to double-check before radioing Shoreham tower.
The pier is now in two separate sections, the ragged end of one facing the ragged end of the other, forty-five tons of wood and metal knotted in the water between them. Some of those stranded on the seaward section stand at the edge desperate to be seen and heard by anyone who might rescue them. Others hang back, try- ing to gauge the most dependable part of the structure. Three couples are trapped in the ghost train listening to the noises out- side, fearful that if they manage to get out they will find them- selves watching the end of the world.
On the landward section two people lie motionless on the decking and three others are too badly injured to move. A woman is shaking the body of her unconscious husband as if he has over- slept and is late for work, while a man with tattooed forearms
chases the petrified cocker spaniel in a large figure of eight. An elderly lady has had a fatal heart attack and remains seated on a bench, head tilted to one side as if she has dozed off and missed all the excitement.
Faint sirens can be heard from the maze of the town.
Two of the swimming men turn back, frightened that they will be struck by yet more of the pier collapsing, but the other three swim on into the archipelago of bodies and broken wood. The pier looms overhead, so much bigger than it has ever seemed from the beach or up there on the walkway, so much darker, more malign. The men can hear the groan and crunch of girders still settling beneath them in the water.
They find a terrified woman, two girls who turn out to be sisters and a man still wearing his spectacles who floats upright in the swell like a seal, only vaguely aware of his surroundings. The woman is hyperventilating and lashing out so wildly that the men wonder initially if she is caught on something under the surface. Only the sisters seem wholly compos mentis, so one of the rescuers escorts them back to the shore. The man wearing the spectacles asks what has happened then asks for the explanation to be repeated. The panicking woman won’t let anyone come near her, so they have to tread water and let her expend all her energy and come perilously close to drowning before she is tractable.
Just beyond the end of the pier five empty lifebelts are mak- ing their way out to sea.
A young man on the promenade lifts his Leica and takes three photographs. Only when he reads the paper the following morn- ing will he realise what is happening in these pictures. Immedi- ately he will open the camera and yank the film out of its drum so that the images are burned away by the light.
The air-sea rescue helicopter rises from its painted yellow cir- cle on the runway at Shoreham, tilts into the prevailing wind and swings off the airfield.
Five minutes. Fifty-eight dead.
On the promenade a number of those who ran to safety have failed to find wives or husbands or children or parents. The manager has closed the gate but these people are weeping and shouting, trying to get back onto the pier. There are no police in attendance yet and he can see that keeping them here against their will may be as dangerous as letting them through and he doesn’t want this responsibility, so he reopens the gate and twelve of them pour past as if he has opened the doors to a January sale. The last of these is a girl of no more than eight years old. He grabs her collar. She fights and weeps at the end of his arm.
The lifeboat is scrambled.
On the eastern side of the pier a farmer from Bicester is trying to prise the six-year-old boy from between his parents. The boy can surely see that they are dead. Half his father’s head is missing. Or perhaps he can’t see this. He won’t let go of them and his grip is so tight that the man is afraid he will break the boy’s arm if he pulls any harder. He asks the boy what his name is but the boy won’t answer. The boy is in some private hell which he will never entirely leave. The farmer has no choice but to turn and swim, towing the three of them ashore. Only when he tries to stand will he realise that his ankle is broken.
The tattooed man comes running down the pier clasping the cocker spaniel to his chest and when he runs through the gate onto the promenade the two of them are greeted by cheers and whoops from a crowd eager to celebrate some small good thing.
Eight minutes. Fifty-nine dead.
The helicopter appears in the sun-glare from the west. Every- one on the promenade hears the growing pulse of the rotors and turns to watch.
None of the eleven people running onto the pier find their missing relatives among the injured and unconscious so they stand near the ragged chasm and shout to the people on the other side. Have they seen an old lady in a green windcheater? A little girl with long red hair? But the people on the far side are not interested in the lady in the windcheater and the girl with red hair because they are missing relatives of their own and they are terrified that the rest of the pier will collapse and the only thing they want to know is when they are going to be rescued.
Two ambulances reach the seafront but the traffic is jammed so tight that the crews have to run carrying stretchers and emer- gency bags. Five stay with the injured on the front, three continue onto the pier itself.
Three policemen are trying to push the spectators back, some of whom resent being evicted from ringside seats. Nobody realises how many people have died. Everyone is thinking how they will tell the story to friends and family and workmates.
On the pier a woman is slid sideways onto a spinal board. An elderly man with a broken collarbone is given morphine.
Fourteen minutes. Sixty dead.
On the promenade people are wondering if it was an IRA bomb. No one wants to believe that time and weather can be this dangerous, and it is exciting to think of oneself as a potential target.
As the helicopter hovers over the end of the pier the people below fight to be the first to grab the winchman as he descends,
but the downdraught batters them away from its epicentre and he alights in a circle of empty decking. He scoops a little girl from her mother’s arms and the sight of her being clipped into a har- ness shames them. As she is hoisted aloft they start gathering the other children, lining them up in order of age ready for the next lift.
The swimmers come ashore—the sisters, the confused man, the struggling woman, their three rescuers. People rush forward with towels. It looks like a competition to see whose will be cho- sen. The struggling woman drops to her knees and digs her hands into the sand as if nothing and no one is going to separate her from solid ground ever again.
The body of the old woman who had a heart attack is carried through the service gate under a white sheet into a sudden hush. There are still people on the front who think she is the only per- son who has died.
The farmer towing the little boy and his dead parents hauls them into the shallows and feels one end of his broken fibula grinding against the other. It should hurt but he can feel no pain. He needs very badly to lie down. He rolls over into the water and looks at the clouds. People rush into the surf, then see his cargo and come to a halt. A young woman steps between them, a nurse from Southampton where she works in the accident and emergency department. She has seen much worse. She is the only black person on the entire beach. She puts her hands flat on the boy’s shoulders and some of those watching wonder if she is using voodoo, but it is the steadiness of her voice which enables him to let go of his parents’ bodies and turn and be held by someone who is not frightened. ...
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