Nigel Farndale The Blasphemer

ISBN 13: 9781441765093

The Blasphemer

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9781441765093: The Blasphemer

An astonishing, ambitious, and masterful new novel, with echoes of Robert Graves's great autobiography Goodbye to All That, that reads at the pace of a thriller.

On its way to the Galapagos Islands, a light aircraft crashes into the sea. Zoologist Daniel Kennedy is confronted with a stark Darwinian choice. Should he save himself or Nancy, the woman he loves? But how can one moment of betrayal ever be forgiven? And after he escapes the plane and swims for help, who is the elusive figure who guides him away from certain death?

Back in London, Daniel thinks he finds the answer; it is connected with his great grandfather and the first horrific day of Passchendaele. But as the past collapses into the present, the fissures in his relationship with Nancy show through, until he is given a second chance to prove his courage and earn her forgiveness. The Blasphemer is a novel that speaks to the head as well as the heart.

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About the Author:

NIGEL FARNDALE is the author of Haw-Haw: The Tragedy of William and Margaret Joyce, which was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Other published works include a collection of his award-winning interviews. He lives in England on the Hampshire-Sussex border with his wife and their three children.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1

London. Present day

Daniel Kennedy stood naked in front of his bathroom mirror and rehearsed in his head the lie he had told, the one he was about to tell again. His reflection was indistinct, more a shadow in the violet-edged dawn. As he stared at it, he felt behind his back for the light cord. Tug. Click. Release. Clack. When the darkness continued, he reached forward and gave the fluorescent tube above the mirror a double tap with his fingertip. It crackled for an instant before casting a sallow light over one half of the bathroom. Mounted to the left of the sink was a round, extendable mirror. He examined his magnified skin in it, captivated by the layers of epithelial tissue, by the orange peel, by the inherited, unchanging size of the pores. After half a minute he blinked, washed with a tea-tree-oil facial scrub, and dabbed with a towel before applying moisturizer. This rubbed in, he rinsed his hands and teased his tufty hair with matt clay, spiking it in a way that looked dry and natural. He plugged in his shaver next, on a setting that left a suggestion of stubble. Its electric buzz was soon joined by the aggressive purr of Nancy Palmer’s toothbrush. Nancy was his dentist, the mother of his child, the woman he loved.

As an associate professor of nematology—a branch of zoology involving Petri dishes, microscopes, and steady hands—Daniel felt he had an excuse for occasionally studying Nancy as though through a powerful convex lens, observing her movements, analyzing her behavior. He watched her now as she lowered the toilet seat, sat down, and stared at the floor. She was running the oscillating head of the toothbrush over her tongue. The tendons on her neck were rigid. Her eyes were avoiding contact with his. After two minutes—her brush had a timer—she wiped, stood up, and pushed the flush lever. He admired the way she could multitask like that.

“Don’t wake the baby,” he said as he clicked off his razor and drew attention to the rushing water.

“Wasn’t going to,” she countered too evenly, her voice tight.

“We should let her sleep for as long as possible.”

“I know. I wasn’t going to wake the baby.”

(Although their daughter, Martha, was nine, they still sometimes referred to her as “the baby.” )

Nancy was wearing the T-shirt she had slept in. It was too big for her—one of Daniel’s—and her frame looked adolescent in it. When she tugged it off in order to stand as lightly as possible on the bathroom scale, her hair tumbled gently and the faded barbed-wire tattoo around her bicep became visible. This, along with her stretch marks and neatly trimmed pubic triangle, was, to Daniel, incongruously adult-looking. As he sprayed under his arms with deodorant, he allowed himself a furtive smile, more a twitch of the lips. He couldn’t afford to let Nancy gauge his mood yet. She hadn’t: she was looking the other way, reaching for the main light switch.

“Don’t turn that on,” Daniel said in a muted voice, crossing the bathroom and lifting the seat. “You’ll wake the baby.” His plan was to goad Nancy in such a concealed way that she wouldn’t understand why she was feeling annoyed. It would, he reasoned, make her appreciate the moment of unknotting all the more.

“But I can’t see the scale.”

As Daniel relieved himself, he balanced on one foot and, behind Nancy’s back, pressed his toes down on the scale.

“Un-be-fucking-lievable,” Nancy said flatly. “I’ve put on four pounds.” She looked over her shoulder and noticed Daniel’s toes. “Hey!” She was laughing now. “Bastard!” The tension that had been building between them was dissipated temporarily. Still smiling, Nancy flipped the seat back down, flushed again, and reached the bathroom door at the same time as Daniel. When she opened it, Martha was standing on the other side, rubbing her eyes.

Three quarters of an hour later, Daniel was sitting in the driver’s seat of what the advertisements had called a “green but mean” hybrid utility vehicle. The engine was running, the heater was on, and he was worrying whether Martha was now too old to see him naked in the bathroom. It had, after all, been more than a year since he had stopped her from getting into the bath with him. Making a mental note to consult Nancy—she always had a good steer on these matters—he unfolded his Guardian and turned to the sports section. England on tour in India. Batting collapse. What a surprise. When a council truck hissed by in the slush, spraying salt on tarmac and parked cars alike, he noticed that his windshield was icing up again where he had emptied the kettle over it. He turned the heater on as high as it would go and watched the glass steam up. The hot air was making him feel claustrophobic. He loosened his scarf, opened the window, and looked out. Beyond the amber halo of the streetlights, blackness was shading into gray. It had been snowing steadily throughout the night and, in the absence of a breeze, flakes had settled on the tree next to the car. The phone lines that crisscrossed the square had also turned white, the extra weight causing them to belly. Daniel turned off his engine so he could appreciate the nakedness of the silence.

“Can I get out and make a snow angel?” Martha asked from her booster seat in the back.

“No. Mummy will be here any second.”

“Think she knows?”

“Hasn’t got a clue.”

The sodium lights dimmed and went off, leaving the square eerily luminous. Daniel checked his watch again. “Did Mummy give you your injection?”

“Not yet,” Martha replied with a yawn. “Said she’d do it in the car.” The child gathered her hair into a ponytail. Pulled up her hood. Shivered. Although it had been nine months since her tiredness, blurred vision, and nightly thirsts had resulted in a diagnosis of type one diabetes, her father still couldn’t bring himself to administer the required dose of insulin. He could inject rabbits and mice in a laboratory, but not his own daughter. Nancy had no such compunction. Being a dentist, she was used to the sight of other people’s discomfort.

That was how they met, Daniel and Nancy. She had entered wearing a face mask that exaggerated her eyebrows: two fiercely plucked arcs. As he lay on her hydraulic chair thinking of the impacted wisdom tooth she was trying to wrest from his numbed gums, her eyes entranced him. They were bearish brown, flecked with gold. He fell in love with them right there as he lay on his back, with his mouth open, flinching intermittently. He also fell in love with the weight of Nancy’s left breast, which, under several layers of material, was pressing against his arm. Pleasure and pain. Pain and pleasure. Their relationship had started as it was destined to continue.

What was she doing in there? They were going to miss their flight at this rate.

Daniel probed with the tip of his tongue the soft cavity that had been left by the wisdom tooth—something he often did without realizing, the equivalent of touching a comfort blanket. He tapped his watch again and shivered with excitement as the porch light came on and Nancy emerged from the house shrugging a gray duffle coat on over a fawn polo neck. The falling snow had softened a little, arriving in flurries, and downy flakes were settling on Nancy’s hair as she turned the front door key in the lock, stood framed on the lip of the porch, and closed her eyes—something she always did when making sure she had remembered everything. Watching her, Daniel felt a surge of tenderness. How beautiful you look, he thought. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you looking more beautiful. “We’ll be late!” he barked through the lowered window. “The traffic is bound to be bad with this weather.”

Snow that had settled on the path creaked as it was compressed under Nancy’s sheepskin boots. “Don’t push it,” she muttered, opening the back door and getting in beside Martha. “And why did you turn the heating off?”

Think. Think. “Global warming.”

Nancy narrowed her eyes. “Now we’ll use twice as much energy reheating the house when we get back. You should have just turned it down.”

Daniel drew breath as if about to reply, but stopped himself. He was becoming mesmerized by the speed at which Nancy was unzipping a medical pouch, removing a needle from a sterilized pack, and slipping it onto a syringe. She did everything quickly: talk, eat, walk, reach orgasm, pick up new languages. Even sleeping was something she appeared to do in a hurry. Something to do with her REMs. Daniel could study her sleeping face for hours.

Nancy was now holding a small bottle of insulin to the car light and giving it an impatient shake. In the same movement, she pierced its rubber stopper, preferring this old-fashioned method to the “pen” because it was easier to keep track of doses. A familiar clinical smell, sharp and metallic, pricked the air. Martha assumed a kneeling position, pulled down one side of her tracksuit trousers, and pinched a fold of skin. Nancy positioned the syringe at an efficient right angle, inserted the needle up to its full depth, pressed down on the plunger, and allowed a few seconds for the dose to be delivered before withdrawing the needle. “There,” she said, massaging the skin. “All done. You had enough to eat?”

Martha nodded, holding up a mottled banana skin.

Nancy stayed in the back and clipped up her belt: as she normally traveled in the front, this was intended as a statement of her annoyance. Daniel shrugged, turned the radio on and, recognizing the thumb positioning of Charlie...

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