Fiction Jules Hardy Altered Land

ISBN 13: 9780743429047

Altered Land

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9780743429047: Altered Land

'I missed the turning over Battersea Bridge. I didn't know it would make a difference ... that the manner of living seconds and minutes mattered' Joan is a single mother - beautiful, talented and desired. John is her adored son, her 'Merboy'. Growing up in the West Country, his life is lived outdoors, playing in the creek by their cottage in Devon, swimming, hunting for shells, collecting bits of old boats. On his thirteenth birthday, Joan treats him to a trip to London to buy his first pair of Levi's jeans. Unused to city driving, she takes a wrong turn. The repercussions of that moment's hesitation are devastating... Their story recounts the life-altering effects of that one moment. It is a story about a mother's heartbreaking love for her son and the different ways people survive damage. With sensitivity and compassion, Jules Hardy's lyrical prose explores the strengths and flaws of this unique relationship between a mother and her son, and vividly describes the altered worlds in which they must live. It is a wonderfully assured debut from an extraordinary new British talent.

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About the Author:

Jules Hardy was born in Bristol and grew up in London. Following graduation she had a number of jobs, including mobile fish-mongering and freelance publishing work. She is a trained carpenter and now works as a teacher in Bristol, while studying for a PhD.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One: John
Ian's black hands are stark against white marble as we wrestle Hercules from his plinth, sweating fingers slipping on the capital's volutes (I remembered, Ma, I remembered) made slimy by moss. Even Ian and I struggle to carry the god up the steps of the deck. We edge like crabs down the side of the house, resting the bust on the path every few feet, and then there is the problem of hoisting him into the removal van. I climb into the echoing space and grab Hercules' ears as Ian pushes at his bearded chin. A passer-by trots over to help, a short, skinny man who looks ludicrous next to Ian's bulk. He says something as Hercules thuds on to the van floor and Ian smiles, shakes the man's tiny hand.

Ian disappears round the back of the house as I edge-walk Hercules to the back of the van, to stand among the others: Pan, resting his pipes on shaggy concrete knees; Apollo, looking smug (and where were his> oracles when you needed them?), Achilles; Narcissus; the wolf suckling Romulus and Remus; a unicorn with a delicate weathered horn; the many gryphons, gargoyles and sphinxes. All of them marking the passage of another year -- my mother's birthday gifts to me. There's not much else -- a few boxes of books and black plastic bin-bags of clothes, my tool-boxes, routers, drills and workbench.

Ian reappears, carrying the plinth under one arm, as easily as a roll of carpet, and slides it along the van floor.
'That it?' he asks.

I find myself tugging hard at the tip of my beard, a sure sign of something. 'I'm just going to check I've got everything.' I walk down the path and through the gate out on to the deck. I wouldn't say it's my favourite (the wooden half-boat deck with its bowsprit maiden has a special place in my heart) but it is possibly the best-crafted. It was, after all, a labour of love -- odd to think of that now. I touch the knobbled scar buried under my hair, carved by a falling lemonade bottle, as my other hand plays with the worrystone in my pocket. The green malachite stone has been worried for nearly thirty years, worried paper-thin, and as I stand in my garden, memorising every plant, every tree, it finally snaps in two.

I walk back to the van, out into weak May sunlight, and before I pull down the rolling door I look again at the statues, boxes and bags. Is that all there is?

The night before my thirteenth birthday I couldn't sleep, kept awake by the excitement of the thought of going to London for the weekend. Although she was in her bedroom, I could hear my mother murmuring on the telephone; the cottage was so small any sound filled it. I switched on the bedside lamp and opened my book, only to read the words 'His heart broke'. I threw down the book, turned off the light and pulled my heart-warmed blankets tighter around me, thinking, His heart broke? His heart broke? How did it break? Did it shatter into a thousand pieces? Or did it snap into two bloody halves, without a sound? Through my open bedroom window I could hear the sea slapping round the pilings in the creek as I burrowed deeper into my bed. I could see my breath on the cold air as I listened to salt-water turning pebbles and rocks. Looking into the darkness of my childhood room I decided I would never break my heart. I imagined holding it close, warm and silent as a well-kept secret. Gathering myself against the cold, I scooted from the bed, snatched Tub the Ted from the chair and jumped back into my warm nest. Hugging Tub, I prodded the hard bump of his growling mechanism and heard the comforting, thin roar. Suddenly I was embarrassed. I was nearly thirteen and I was cuddling a teddy bear. I dumped Tub on the floor. Childish thoughts.

How was I to know that was the last night of my childhood? Maybe if I had, I would have held Tub in my long, skinny arms all night long.

My wife, Sonja, is from a different world, a Nordic world of snow, soused herrings and long winter nights. She left that world when she was seventeen, her mind her passport; for her mind was, and is, so razor-sharp it would make minced meat of Ockham himself. Sonja could have studied anywhere -- MIT, Harvard, Oxford -- but the first time I saw her was at King's College, London. An ugly building which seems even now an unlikely place to find beauty. Yet it was there that I saw her for the first time, there that I first touched her hand and noticed nothing unusual. For she left me breathless, boneless and, eventually, she would argue, heartless. I managed, somehow, to speak, to form words and ask her where she was from, what she was studying, as her hand grew hot in mine. She frowned and looked at my lips, as I looked at hers. We smiled and knew then -- both of us -- that this meeting would last a lifetime. And so it has. It has lasted for the life-time since that moment. It has stretched over twenty years and I have never stopped loving the woman whose hand I first touched in that ugly building.
The first time I took Sonja down to Devon, to my mother's house in Thurlestone, it was a humid August night and we arrived to find her drunk, weaving slightly, her gestures clipped yet indefinite. The three of us sat in the library, searching for conversation as my mother fumbled with her glass, her cigarettes, her lighter. The air was heavy, made boxy by the static of an impending storm. When my mother went to the kitchen for a refill, I followed her and told her my news, told her why Sonja and I had come to visit. I knew my mother had spoken, knew she'd said something because the air moved.

'Sorry?' I asked.

My mother whirled round, furious, gripping a green gin bottle tightly by its neck. 'I said, "She may be beautiful but she's not right for you."'

I looked out at the volcanic arch, which shattered the horizon of the line between sea and sky. A dark slab of granite in the bay, sun blazing through its portal. `I can't believe that, Ma,' I tried to say but I must have only whispered.

My mother, her glass frosted by ice, smiled her wintry smile. 'You can't even talk any more.'

'I'm going to marry her.'

'Then you're a fool.'

'I love her.'

'Fine. Fine. Love her, then, go ahead and love her. But you don't have to marry her.' My mother scissored around the kitchen, sharp as a blade, picking up oddments and resetting them, slicing them, cutting them up or down and throwing them away. A lime was slashed and sectioned. She came to rest against the hard chrome edge of the cooker, holding her colourless drink against her chest, against her heart of stone.

I considered this. `I'll marry her anyway.'

I didn't hear Sonja's soft entry, in bare feet on a slate floor. It was my mother's flint-glance that made me turn to see Sonja watching me.

'Special, you don't have to,' she said, and smiled.

'But I want to.' When I said this my voice must have had a touch of amazement: how could it be that anyone would not want to marry Sonja?

My mother tapped me on the shoulder and reluctantly I turned away from Sonja to look at the lipstick-furred edges of my mother's mouth. It was the fine spray of saliva on my cheek -- as if she'd just stabbed the lime inches from my face -- that made me realise how angry she was. 'There's something wrong with her,' my mother said, gesturing at Sonja with the empty glass.

All these years later I can still feel the spray of my mother's spit and I rub it with my hand. But however hard I wipe, scrub my skin, however often, it's still there, that spray. Because she was right. There is indeed something wrong with Sonja, there always was.

I'm eight years old and I'm standing in the middle of a living room in a shabby Victorian house in Earl's Court, watching my mother, my beautiful, angle-poised mother, grabbing other people's waists, swaying and screaming with delight, swilling drinks (no change there) because the score is 2-2. Then suddenly it's 3-2 and my mother is crying, which is fine because she rushes over to me, kneeling right by the screen, and colourless sloe-scented drink spills down my front as she hugs me while the commentator bawls, 'This is a heart-stopping moment!' Well, it certainly was for me because all I could do was glance down at my scrawny chest and wait for my heart to stop. I watched everyone in the room as they danced, spilling Watney's Red and cheap plastic-bottle red wine. I was watching for their hearts, and as I sat right next to the television, which was blaring in my ear, I heard someone yell, `They think it's all over... It is now!' And when I turned round it was to see a ball ballooning into the net as if it were itself an overblown heartbeat.

The first time I touched Sonja, really touched her, was in her bed in halls, the only place I felt safe then. She put my hand on her bare breast and smiled. Looked at me and said, 'Burgundy wine.'

'What?'

'Wine. Your hand.'

'I don't get it.'

'You don't have to.'

'Right.'

Three weeks later I stood in my mother's kitchen and told her that I was going to marry Sonja and my mother said that there was something wrong with Sonja. That stormy night, after my mother had staggered to bed, we sat out on the deck with a bottle of red wine and I found out what it was.

Sonja told me then that she is a synaesthete: someone who tastes colours, sees music, feels sound, hears pictures, smells temperature. Her senses have mingled; they play randomly with each other. One sense is stimulated and another receptor stretches, like a dog on a hot pavement, and replies.

'What? Like thinking Wednesday is blue and six? Monday is yellow and three? That kind of thing?'

'No, not like that.' She frowned and wrapped her arms round herself. 'Not like that.'

'Like what, then?'

'What you're talking about is to do with language and experience. You're responding to words, labels, and your experiences of them. Everyone has colours they prefer, numbers they like -- maybe because of their shape or something.' She reached for her glass of wine as lightning razzled across the bay, making cliffs and beach jump purple. 'I mean like that -- the sky changes and I taste sour lemon. I see the flash and I taste lemon.' She looked away from me, out to sea. 'When it's really bad I don't even see the lightning, I just taste lemon.'

'Jesus Christ.'

She wakes to the alarm on Monday mornings tasting peaches, she listens to opera and sees John Martin's vast canvases. She eats spaghetti and her hands tingle as if a bolt of silk is being pulled through them. Eating in a restaurant is always an interesting experience.

'How was your fish, madam?'

'Wonderful, like aluminium.'

Sometimes it's worse than other times. Sometimes she can't function very well because her vision, her interpretation, of the world is so at odds with the rest of ours. Most of the time it's not so bad. She says that she would rather be a synaesthete than colour blind. But, then, she was always an optimisticsynaesthete -- as I realised when she described my touch as being burgundy wine. And now I understand what she means: my touch is not like burgundy wine, it is burgundy wine.

I remember looking out at the volcanic arch and thinking, Well, that's just fine.

Twenty years is a long time; it used to be a generation. Sonja and I have lived half our lives together. And all around us people have failed at the one thing they wished to do well -- to love someone and to stay with them. So simple. So why is it that over the years friends have come to us in pieces, fragmented wrecks, and cried in front of us, as Sonja makes pictures of their words and I watch their faces and their mouths work? We have always been the constant, the given, the exemplar.

Sonja and I don't have children. I'm not sure when we made that decision; I'm not even sure if it was a decision, a choice. I don't know. I woke up one day and realised we were both forty and childless, realised that all we had was each other. Which was enough for me because if children had arrived they would have brought change and disturbance with them. Our lives would have been bent out of shape, twisted by unfamiliar uncertainties and unexpected fears. Besides, I've never been quite sure what fatherhood means.

I am a carpenter. I shape wood so that it will fit together one way or another, and I sometimes think my mother's disappointed that this is what I do. I left King's College after a year and trained for a City and Guilds diploma. One Friday afternoon I climbed on my motorbike and drove to Sonja's halls of residence, swerving and listing violently at high speed, because I wanted to get to Sonja. (I have always wanted to get to Sonja.) I burst into her room, wearing sawdust-covered dungarees and a motorcycle helmet and asked her to marry me and she said she would. Her friends exclaimed, talked of the romance of what I had done. I didn't have the heart to tell them it wasn't romance; it was loneliness that prompted me.

And now I'm a carpenter in Bristol. I'm not sure how I journeyed down these two decades to arrive here in a huge house with more money than I have time to spend. How did this happen? Sometimes I feel my life is like a vast sieve: pour in time and effort, shake, and a cloud of money drifts out. You entertain thoughts such as this if you live with a synaesthete. Nothing is like anything else and yet everything is like something else. A handful of raspberries is the sound of rain falling; the smell of diesel is the sour taste of fried okra.

One evening, many years ago, I sat in the garden of the Highbury Vaults pub, kneading the calluses on my hands, thanking some deity or other for the evening sun, and I began to talk to the man sitting next to me. This was Ian, a metal-worker, a man of steel, a colossus, so muscle-bound I wanted to repot him, to put him in a bigger body, a more accommodating body. I have since always been fearful that he will burst out of his own. He asked me what I was doing at the time, and I told him I was building a deck. He flinched (I half expected his skin to peel open) and said that he was doing the same. We had a few more pints and sketched some ideas on paper. At the end of the evening, when we stood and shook hands, I realised Ian was only an inch or so shorter than me. Absurdly this pleased me, made me trust him. Three weeks later Elemental was born. What else would we call our company? He wrought iron and I shaved wood. Elements. Fashioned elements. And now we build decks for people who can afford them -- and they are many -- in Bristol and Bath.
It was when we moved into the studio flat in Battersea, just after we were married, that Sonja decided it was time I learned to cook. She'd spent her childhood eating fish in its various guises and was fascinated by the abundance of food in London's shops. Every Saturday morning we'd go walk-about, Sonja armed with a shopping list, and she'd point out fresh ginger, lychees, clemenvillas and asparagus, sharon fruit and Jerusalem artichokes. She tried to show me how to select the best but this wasn't always successful. My huge hand would wrap round an avocado and in the act of squeezing it gently I'd reduce it to green pulp. We'd buy pork belly and calves' liver, venison and guinea...

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