First Page Critique: Unearthed

Today’s first page critique is for a mystery/thriller entitled ‘Unearthed’. My comments follow  – see you on the flip side – and I look forward to getting further feedback from the TKZ community.

UNEARTHED

The thing Rosemary said was a corpse lay against the garden wall, under the tree. Jittery from lack of sleep, Cal left her on the outside stairs leading to his flat, crossed the lawn and approached the wall, cold London air nipping at him. It wouldn’t really be a dead body, of course, whatever his landlady said. A trick, a mannequin got up in men’s clothes, or some wino passed out after wandering in off the streets, it would be. Then he saw the long coat and dirty orange hood rising out of it.

“Oh, this guy,” he said.

“What?” Rosemary was all clenched into herself, teeth at her nails. He’d never seen the old girl shaken before; he couldn’t have this.

He raised his voice. “Come on, mate. Time to go.” The man didn’t move. His hooded face was turned to the wall. Cal tapped his shoulder. His fingers met a jolting thinness under the coat. He sighed. If he gave the guy some breakfast, he’d keep coming back and Amanda’d throw a fit. Rosemary wouldn’t be any too joyful, either. “Hey. You can’t sleep here.”

“He isn’t,” Rosemary said. “I knew I shouldn’t have, but I looked. I pulled that hood up a bit. He’s bloody dead.”

Cal crouched. The man didn’t smell of alcohol. Something weird, sweetish, but not alcohol. There was no movement, either. Not even breathing. “Oh, no. Oh, God.”

Rosemary came down a few steps. “Did you say you knew him?”

“No, just saw him this morning, coming home from work. I thought he was just pissed. He must’ve been ill. I’m such a dick, I should’ve checked.”

Rosemary waved a dismissive hand. Cal saw all her sixty-three years this morning, gathered in lines on her forehead and around her mouth. “That wouldn’t have been him.”

“It was. I remember the clothes. I was coming through the park, he was headed the same direction.” Stumbling and swaying behind him as he crossed the park in winter dawn. “He was holding his head funny; maybe he was in an accident. He was quite far behind but I could’ve stopped. I should have asked if he was — Oh, shit, Rosemary, what if he was dying and I just –”

“It wasn’t the same man. Look at him.”

Cal pressed his fingers into his brow. “Didn’t see his face.”

“Just look,” she said.

MY COMMENTS

Overall, I think this first page has potential. I liked the casualness and tone of protagonist and his reaction to the possibility that the body was that of ‘wino’ he’d seen earlier (someone he’d ignored rather than helped) felt both realistic and sympathetic. For me, however, the dramatic potential of this first page is undermined by some awkward phrasing and dialogue, as well as inconsistencies in Rosemary’s character/reactions. I would also liked a bit more sense of place (more about that below). First, let’s deal with my phrasing/dialogue concerns.

Even in the first paragraph there are some awkward, clunky sentences, repetition and disjointed sentences which initially seemed jarring (at least to me). I had similar phrasing issues throughout the first page and thought the easiest way to illustrate these concerns was to mark up the page – bolding the issues/awkwardness and putting my comments in italics. While some of my comments may seem a bit petty, it is vital that this first page reads smoothly and succinctly to capture the reader’s interest. I’ve also added some comments about Rosemary’s reactions and dialogue – which I discuss in greater detail after the marked up version.

So here goes.

UNEARTHED

The thing Rosemary said was a corpse (seems a clumsy way to begin) lay against the garden wall, under the tree. Jittery from lack of sleep, Cal left her (we know it’s Rosemary but grammatically this sounds like the corpse as that’s the subject of the previous sentence) on the outside stairs leading to his flat, crossed the lawn and approached the wall (repetition), cold London air nipping at him. It wouldn’t really be a dead body, of course, whatever his landlady said (note: at this stage we don’t know Rosemary is his landlady)(Maybe a colon or dash would be better grammatically?) A trick, a mannequin got up in men’s clothes, or some wino passed out after wandering in off the streets, it would be (this is unnecessary and clunky). Then he saw the long coat and dirty orange hood rising out of it (what is it? Assume coat but sounds awkward).

“Oh, this guy,” he said.

“What?” Rosemary was all clenched into herself, teeth at her nails (sounds like she’s bent over with her teeth pushing against her nails when I think author means she has her nails in her mouth). He’d never seen the old girl shaken before; he couldn’t have this (awkward/redundant).

He raised his voice. “Come on, mate. Time to go.” The man didn’t move. His hooded face was turned to the wall. Cal tapped his shoulder. His fingers met a jolting thinness (weird description for me) under the coat. He sighed. If he gave the guy some breakfast, he’d keep coming back and Amanda’d (looks weird – I prefer Amanda would) throw a fit. Rosemary wouldn’t be any too joyful, either. “Hey. You can’t sleep here.”

He isn’t,(maybe add ‘sleeping’ to be clear – otherwise sounds a bit of an odd reply). Rosemary said. “I knew I shouldn’t have, but I looked. I pulled that hood up a bit. He’s bloody dead.”

Cal crouched. The man didn’t smell of alcohol. Something weird, sweetish, but not alcohol. There was no movement, either. Not even breathing. “Oh, no. Oh, God.”

Rosemary came down a few steps. “Did you say you knew him?” (Cal hasn’t said this…just ‘oh this guy’ – which doesn’t mean/sound like he actually knew him)

“No, just saw him this morning, coming home from work. I thought he was just pissed. He must’ve been ill. I’m such a dick, I should’ve checked.”

Rosemary waved a dismissive hand (why dismissive?? This seems inconsistent given how tense and worried she’s been). Cal saw all her sixty-three years this morning, gathered in lines on her forehead and around her mouth. “That wouldn’t have been him.” (Not sure why she says this – doesn’t make much sense as she doesn’t know who Cal saw…why would she know it wasn’t the same person?)

“It was. I remember the clothes. I was coming through the park, he was headed the same direction.” Stumbling and swaying behind him as he crossed the park in winter dawn. “He was holding his head funny; maybe he was in an accident. He was quite far behind but I could’ve stopped. I should have asked if he was — Oh, shit, Rosemary, what if he was dying and I just –”

It wasn’t the same man. Look at him.” (Again how does she know that??)

Cal pressed his fingers into his brow. “Didn’t see his face.”

Just look,” she said. (At what?? Up till now Rosemary hasn’t said she knows anything more about the corpse that Cal does…so why does it now sound like she does??)

ROSEMARY’S CHARACTER, REACTIONS AND DIALOGUE

While I was fine with Cal’s reactions and concerns, I was a little confused by Rosemary. She obviously ran to Cal to tell him she’d discovered a body and, though it was understandable that Cal didn’t believe her initially, Rosemary’s attitude then seems to shift  from tension and concern to a dismissiveness that I found very strange. First she dismisses Cal’s observations out of hand and then seems to be certain that the dead body is not the person Cal saw earlier. The rationale for this is unclear. Perhaps Rosemary saw something on the corpse’s face but, based on this first page, it seems odd that she wouldn’t have said something to Cal right away.

SENSE OF PLACE

Finally, I would have like to have got a greater sense of place in this first page. Apart from the reference to ‘London air’ nipping at him, we have only generic references to a wall, a tree, a park, and a block of flats. I would have liked a bit more specificity. For example if we knew it was an old gnarled oak tree, that Cal had been walking on Hampstead Heath, and if the block of flats was a red brick, post WWII era block – this would have all added more color/texture to the first page and helped ground the reader in time/place.

Overall, I think this page could be an interesting opening to a mystery novel set in London and the specific issues I’ve identified can easily addressed during the revision process.  So TKZers what do you think? What comments would you give to our brave submitter??

 

 

 

 

2+

27 thoughts on “First Page Critique: Unearthed

  1. Good morning, Clare. Interestingly, some turns of phrase you found awkward were the ones I was drawn to *because* they sounded British–at least to this American-English speaker. It would be, clenched into herself, he couldn’t have this, jolting thinness, that wouldn’t have been him–all sounded similar to phrasing I remember as a child from British-born relatives. But I defer to your expertise!

    I thought Rosemary’s firm assertion it couldn’t be the same guy Cal had seen earlier was good because it raises the question–how does *she* know that?

    More specific description, as you suggested, would increase the eerie, surreal mood.

    I also felt confused about the time of day. Initially I thought early morning b/c it sounded as if Rosemary had roused Cal from sleep. Then he talks about seeing the man earlier that morning on his way home from work. Does that mean it’s evening now? Then he mentions breakfast and he saw all of her sixty-three years this morning. So apparently it is morning. A couple of words to clarify would have helped, maybe “on his way home from his graveyard shift at [fill in the blank].” I also would have liked to know what kind of work he did.

    Overall, I liked the understated tone and subtle hints of conflict to come. Rosemary peeking under the hood and her apparent knowledge about the man make me wonder what else she knows that she isn’t saying. Is “bloody dead” meant literally or figuratively? Will Cal become a suspect?

    In other words, I would definitely turn the page. Good job, Anonymous Author.

    • Interesting as I didn’t feel some of those particular phrases were ‘Englishy’ but it’s subjective and I’m certainly no expert:)
      Good catch on the time of day question as that is confusing and if Rosemary is described with more specificity I would totally be interested in how she was sure this wasn’t the person (at first I thought it was because she’d seen a women’s face but then all the references she’d made were to a man so I realized that couldn’t be it.)

      • Ha! I reveal myself as ‘brave author’! I didn’t want to cheat so I meticulously didn’t go over my 400 words. In the next few lines, we find that the reason Rosemary ‘knows’ it isn’t the same man Cal saw last night is because the dead man is in a state of decay, arrested somewhat by mummification.

        The time of day is morning, but Cal works at night. he came home in the morning and is jittery because he’s only had about two hours’ sleep before R wakes him.

    • Thanks, Debbie! Yes, ’tis I!

      I’ve left a longer reply in Clare’s thread, but thank you so much for your thoughts.

      Yes, you got me and my British writing! Nice catch. As I say, it’s often difficult for me in crit boards, because they tend to be American, and then the reviewers spend a lot of time querying turns of phrases that Americans wouldn’t use. That’s frustrating, but if they really can’t get past it to feel the rest of the story, it’s worth knowing. After all, you want your story to be publishable in other countries.

      To that end, I looked up amazon.com (not co.uk) reviews of Adam Neville’s work. He’s a best-selling Brit horror writer.

      Neville’s ‘The Ritual’ actually starts thus: ‘And on the second day, things did not get better’! I can only imagine Alan P’s rage!

      I did find this from a reviewer:

      “I didn’t understand some of the British slang or references, and I think the book needed a closer editing. I understand literary license, but sometimes the abundance of sentence fragments made me have to stop and backtrack for meaning.”

      Even though I’m not a fan of Adam Neville because I tend to hate his characters and his plots go all over the place, our writing has that similarity in that we both write as close third thoughts. His work is littered with fragmented sentences and naturalistic dialogue. So, I don’t know, maybe it’s a British or Euro thing that doesn’t translate to the US very well.

      I scanned through Ritual and found ‘bin bags’, ‘twat’ ‘shagging those scabby tarts’ ‘trousers’, on a fairly detailed look. I guess those might be obscure terms to Americans.

      On a whole, we are far, far more able to negotiate US terms than the other way round; we get loads of your TV and films and even books. I didn’t know what a ‘dork’ or a ‘red-neck’ was when I first read Stephen King, but I pretty instantly worked out what they must mean. Believe me, there were no British dictionaries that listed that word back then, and no internet, either! (:

      I was invited to sub to an American review board. I messaged them warning of my Britishness, and they agreed it probably wasn’t worth my while. It’s a shame, because there are so few opportunities out there, and America seems a lot more generous about reaching out to new writers, but there it is.

      I have joined a Brit online community that focuses on SF but isn’t averse to horror. I think I will probably get more useful crits there, but I love this one! Not quite sure what to do. I don’t want to iron out all the authenticity from my characters’ personas, but it would be a shame if US readers were out.

      Ah, well. I’ll keep writing and have a think when I’m finished.

      All the best, and thanks so much for your help,
      T x

      • Thanks so much for stepping forward Tracey! I think you just have to aim for clarity – with some editing you’re easily going to get there and I think the fragmentary approach is fine to keep the character’s voice/persona authentic:)

        • Thank you, Clare. Oh, indeed some of the crits pertaining to the time of day etc, are really useful. I just don’t know if I can iron out other things enough to be intelligible to and easily-read by y’all in the US, while still retaining authenticity.

          BTW, one of my Brit beta readers calls me out for using US terms like ‘burlap’ instead of ‘hessian’!

          • Tracey, I think you can achieve both but see how the UK beta readers feel after making some changes. These things are often subjective so just because it doesn’t work for me, doesn’t mean it won’t work for others:)

  2. Thank you, Brave Author, for letting us take a peek at your first page.

    Actually, because my mind goes there, I thought the dead man is surely a zombie or ghoul, and that THAT’s why Rosemary is positive Cal couldn’t have seen the dead man walking around. He’s been dead a good week (or he’s a blue alien from outer space, or something). No doubt we’ll turn the page and learn of the dead man’s horrid descriptions. In fact, my favorite line is when Rosemary says, “Just look,” at the end. Made my hair stand up.

    I stumbled in several of the same places that Clare did. “Teeth at her nails” made me think Rosemary’s body is folded over. And I had to read “orange hood rising out of it” twice to figure out what it meant.

    Overall, I enjoyed this first page, and I want to know what’s under that hood!

  3. I hate to say it. I found it a jumbled mess. There is the making of a good intro here, it is just lost in sentence fragments, oddly placed dialog and a grammatical mess.

    Dear author: Whodunnit, thriller, paranormal, zombie story, I am not sure. Take me where you are going. I think there is something under here worth reading.

    • Hi, Alan! Good to have your input. I generally write in my characters’ heads, and I find most people don’t speak in proper Queen’s English most of the time, that they do fragment. However, ‘grammatical mess’ is a worry. Can you give me an example?

      No, this page doesn’t absolutely state what’s going on, but in the next couple of lines you find out the man was clearly not alive last night when Cal ‘thinks’ he saw him.

      Thank you!

    • Thank you, Arooba. What are your thoughts on it? (Sorry, cannot afford writing classes so am very greedy about any lessons I can learn from boards like these).

  4. Hi! I am Brave Author (yeah, me again, so you know I’ma be bending your ear for a while!)

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, Clare. Thanks for all comments. I am beginning to realise that Americans and Brits talk too differently for my dialogue to be smooth to US ears, so I’m glad some of you enjoyed it.

    Alan feels my sentences are too fragmented, though. I’d like to address that. It might be something I have to change. At least, I would like to understand it.

    To that end, I looked up a discussion of using ‘character voice,’ rather than ‘narrator voice’; in prose:
    https://www.sffchronicles.com/threads/562250/

    It talks about how sentence fragments have become de rigeur (and this is in 2015) because authors are expressing how their characters are thinking, as a progression of ‘how real people speak’ becoming more prevalent (referencing ‘The Wire’). Which I think is odd. Surely authors should ALWAYS have been writing how real people speak?

    I mean, I grabbed an Agatha Christie just to check, as i couldn’t find my old Enid Blytons (:, and here, from ‘And Then There Were None’:

    ‘For two pins he’d made an excuse and get away…Throw up the whole business…

    But the motorboat had gone back to the mainland.

    He’d have to stay.

    That fellow Lombard, now, he was a queer chap.

    Not straight. He’d swear the man wasn’t straight.’

    Fragmented sentences, thoughts left trailing. But you absolutely get a sense of General McArthur. Would this be offensive to modern ears? I’m afraid I just don’t get this.

    In close third, I can’t imagine writing, ‘When he’d traversed the vast expanses of the common at dawn, he beheld the adult human gentleman at his heels.’ or ‘Aye, that clatty crowboggle last night! And he’d been too pure scunnered to ask if he was OK.’ Because Cal is a middle-class young London man and he doesn’t think like an English professor or a Scottish fisherman.

    When I’m not in Cal’s head – actions etc, it’s in narrator voice but still referencing Cal rather than English professor or Scottish fisherman.

    What do you think? Is this something that’s still frowned on since 2015? I’ve often read books written this way and it doesn’t seem at all outre to me. I even rather think, what with Agatha and Enid etc, that I grew UP reading books written this way. I don’t get the objection, so any clarification would be aweseome.

    So, anyway, I purposely didn’t go over the 400 word count as I didn’t want to cheat, so we’ve stopped just before the part Cal finds out the dead man could clearly not have been alive as recently as ‘this morning’, which is when Cal, coming home from his night-work in document production, saw him. Cal’s only been asleep a couple of hours when Rosemary wakes him. Thank you for pointing out the confusion about time. I’ll pop in that he’d only been a sleep two hours and recently come home from work, easily done.

    Yes, folks, we have a zombie here, but the tale is not zombapocalypse but about voodoo magic. I got the idea from all those ads in the back of the London free papers, ‘African spiritual healer with 30 years of experience, can remove curses, bring your love back to you…’ etc. I wondered, what if it goes wrong? Voodoo spells are only supposed to do what’s natural. What if a woman cannot accept her man doesn’t lover her anymore and keeps pushing and paying and promising bonuses until a foolish ‘bokor’ does a forbidden ritual?

    Clare, you suggest I add more sense of place. This is what I struggle with.

    We’re in a garden in London, in the morning. The weather’s cold. The garden has a lawn and a wall and outside steps leading up to Cal’s flat. I hope this much is clear. I don’t put in more description because this is the only place Cal is seeing right now. I’m trying to keep to close third.

    Also, in adding more to the place right at the beginning, won’t I be slowing things down even more (no zombie reveal in the first 400 words!)? I do later expand on the whole neighbourhood, when Cal goes out, because the neighbourhood is pretty important in this (It’s actually based on my own area, Chiswick, West London, even down to Ro’s house, which is my local Buddhist temple; I dream of buying it and converting into a house…) I guess I could have him gazing over the neighbourhood before he comes down the steps – Yes.

    Lots to think about, but I am concerned that close third is coming off as bad grammar. I just want to determine if this is a widely-held perception or not.

    Cheers, all, especially Clare. You are wonderful and I will be a better writer from knowing you!

      • Hi Tracey! I totally think you can pull off a fragmentary approach – it’s really just a question of clarity and succinctness and making it ring true to a broad range of people. Close third POV will totally work in this piece with just a little bit more finesse. You’re really not too far off making this first page zing. Now I know the context it’s also easier to visualize what’s going on. Just a few more hints on time/place and why Rosemary’s convinced it’s not ‘him’ and I think this will be a strong beginning for your novel.

        • Will do. Not sure it’ll ever sing to a whole range of nationalities, because if I iron out the Brit-speak, the characters will probably sound flat or screenplay-ish, but I’ll give it a good. Thanks so much for your help.

          I do want the reader to wonder why Rosemary’s so convinced it’s not the same man and for them not to know until Cal does. Do you think that’s problematic? I’m hoping that once the reader knows the genre, which generally, whether agent or browser, they usually do before they start reading, they would know everything won’t be dumped on their lap right away but that something eerie is up.

          Sorry to rattle on but I do find discussions about writing so damn interesting. What we’re taught and what changes and what works and what doesn’t and why, and if the why is subjective and how to fix it. Love it. This is fab.

  5. Thanks for sharing your work with us, Tracey. Clare gave a wonderful critique. Here are some additional comments.

    Opening Paragraph

    The first sentence is awkward. Moreover, you begin the story inside of Cal’s head. Show, don’t tell. You don’t want to have Cal thinking about his conversation with Rosemary. Show the reader the conversation. Don’t tell the reader that Cal is jittery from lack of sleep. Instead, show Rosemary waking Cal up and getting him out of bed. If there’s any place in your writing that you want to show not tell, it’s the opening.

    See Janice Hardy’s book: Understanding Show, Don’t Tell: (And Really Getting It) (Skill Builders Series Book 1)

    Dialogue

    Tighten up dialogue. Lines like this are too long and rambling:

    “No, just saw him this morning, coming home from work. I thought he was just pissed. He must’ve been ill. I’m such a dick, I should’ve checked.”

    See James Scott Bell’s book: How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript

    Setting

    Make setting details as clear as possible to the reader.

    First Cal says: “No, just saw him this morning, coming home from work.”

    Who was coming home from work? Cal? Or the dead guy? Don’t make the reader guess.

    I’m assuming that Cal works at some sort of job that keeps him out until the wee hours of the morning. Maybe Cal is a bartender or something. Let the reader know what Cal was doing when he saw the guy.

    Then later, you write: “Cal saw all her sixty-three years this morning…”

    So, make it clear who was coming home from work. Clarify the amount of time that passed between the time Cal saw the guy and the current story time.

    As Clare pointed out, you need to flesh out the setting (no pun intended) a bit more.

    Dialect/Phrasing

    Some of the same phrases that seemed odd to Clare came across as odd to me. Consider using phrasing that will appeal to a wider audience. You can still get the same “flavor” if you tone things down. Aim for clarity above all else.

    For example:

    “A trick, a mannequin got up in men’s clothes, or some wino passed out after wandering in off the streets, it would be.”

    This line is confusing, especially the reader is thrown into the character’s head too soon.

    See this article:
    https://floridawriters.net/writing-dialect/

    Overwriting

    One example:

    “Then he saw the long coat and dirty orange hood rising out of it.”

    Get rid of the “rising out of it.” Look to trim unneeded words when possible.

    Best of luck and keep writing! When in doubt, aim for clarity.

    • “especially the reader is thrown into the character’s head too soon” should read “especially since the reader is thrown into the character’s head too soon.”

      • Joanne – as always, your detailed comments are a great addition to the discussion – Thank you! Tracey, I think everyone is giving you pretty similar advice so good luck with your revisions – I think you can really pull this off if you just clarify and ‘finesse’ this page:)

        • Yes, the orange hood is definitely due an overhaul! Thank you, will get onto revisions re clarity of time and place.

    • Thank you so much for your comments. Very interesting food for thought there. Very interesting.

      Yes, I will definitely clarify things like what time of day it was and who was coming from work. I’ll def change the orange hood thing.

      Thanks for the link to the dialect essay. I can understand that very obscure dialect – ie rhyming slang – would need a glossary!

      ‘Tone down’…Those Brit-isms I use are extremely tame! I guess I just didn’t realise quite how outre our phrasing can sound to American ears, because even well-educated Brits like Cal use sentences flipped around, like ‘A quiet wedding, it would be’. We all understand Americanisms but not the other way round.

      I read a lot of Joe Lansdale, and I don’t feel toe-stubbed on, ‘Time he goes to bed, he starts thinking on her some’, and ‘Now the lumbago he gets’,(quotes, ‘Blood and Lemonade’) although those are ungrammatical phrases that no Brit would ever say – NOT because they’re ungrammatical, I hasten to add!

      The reason this is so sobering for me is because readers, teachers, my agent etc have always told me my dialogue is ninja, that it sounds real and not ‘screenplay’. I don’t want to lose that. I’m going to have to think a LOT about how to go forward on this.

      Thank you so much, once more!

  6. Done a bit of tidying and carried on for another half-page. Is this any better for clarity etc? Hope it’s OK to do it this way; I don’t see any other writing of the same title posted twice, so I guess this is how revisions are posted.

    Thank you!

    ONE
    The corpse lay against the garden wall, under the tree. Cal stood with Rosemary just outside his flat, on the steps that ran along the side of her house. Suburban redbrick houses sprawled around the neighbourhood in leafy affluence. Only Rosemary’s, on a corner halfway down the quiet street, looked amiably insouciant, rambling white amongst the Norman Shaws, a lofty rebel, like Rosemary herself.

    It wouldn’t really be a dead body, of course, whatever his landlady said.

    Leaving her on the steps, he went down, across the lawn and over to the wall. What had he really been hauled out of sleep for, a bare two hours after coming home from work this morning? A trick, a mannequin got up in men’s clothes, or some wino passed out after wandering in off the streets? Then he saw the long coat and its dirty orange hood.

    “Oh, this guy,” he said
    .
    “What?” Rosemary was all clenched into herself, biting her nails. He’d never seen the old girl shaken before; he couldn’t have this.

    He raised his voice. “Come on, mate. Time to go.” The man didn’t move. His hooded face was turned to the wall. Cal tapped his shoulder. It was a joltingly thin shoulder. He sighed. If he gave the guy some breakfast, he’d keep coming back and Amanda’d throw a fit. Rosemary wouldn’t be any too joyful, either.
    “Hey. You can’t sleep here.”

    “He isn’t sleeping,” Rosemary said. “I told you. I knew I shouldn’t have, but I looked. I pulled that hood up a bit. He’s bloody dead.”

    Cal crouched. The man didn’t smell of alcohol. Something weird, sweetish, but not alcohol. There was no movement, either. Not even breathing. “Oh, no. Oh, God.”

    Rosemary came down, stopping in the middle of the lawn. “Did you say you knew him?”

    “No, just saw him this morning, when I was coming home from work. I thought he was just pissed. He must’ve been ill. I’m such a dick, I should’ve checked.”

    Rosemary waved a dismissive hand. Cal saw all her sixty-three years this morning, gathered in lines on her forehead and around her mouth. “That wouldn’t have been him.”

    “It was. I remember the clothes. I was coming through the park, he was headed the same direction.” Stumbling and swaying behind him as he crossed the park in winter dawn. “He was holding his head funny; maybe he was in an accident. He was quite far behind but I could’ve stopped. I should have asked if he was ⸺ Oh, shit, Rosemary, what if he was dying and I just ⸺”

    “It wasn’t the same man. Look at him.”

    “Rosemary, I didn’t see his face.”

    “Just look,” she said.

    That lady-of-the-manor waspishness was more like her usual self. Good. Still, he hesitated for a second, suddenly very glad for once that Amanda was away. Then he leaned forward. He pulled the lower part of the orange hood aside. Lips dried out like beef jerky stretched up away from teeth in a nearly fleshless jaw.

    Cal was on his feet in one movement. “What the fuck?”

    Rosemary said, “Ugh. See?”

    He pulled the hood away. The head dropped back onto the ground, like a doll’s. Hard, darkened skin stretched over ridges of bone. The eyes sunken and dried in their sockets. That rictus grin.

    #

    He dined out on the story for the first time the next night, at his brother Kennedy and sister-in-law Theresa’s tall Clapham house. Setting their baby Toby’s toy sheep buzzing along the high-chair tray, he treated Kennedy to a look of mock-anger. “Medical students, eh, Toby?”

    “Oy,” Kennedy said. “I never dumped cadavers in people’s gardens.”

    “So you say.”

    Theresa hugged herself, tiny hands clutching at her shoulders. “I don’t know how you can joke about it. I would have to move, I think.”

    Cal prodded Toby’s nose. Toby opened his mouth in a huge smile and squealed. “It wasn’t exactly nice, but you can’t dwell. After all, it’s how everyone ends up. We’re all just fertilizer in the end.”

    “What a heathen family I’ve married into.”

    “You knew the risks,” Kennedy said. He went into the kitchen to see to the stew. Theresa kissed the top of her baby son’s head with a contentment that lit up her lilting eyes. When he and Amanda had kids, there’d be a family of cousins who looked completely different. Their kids might have Amanda’s fine-boned blonde looks or his hearty Irish-rooted ones and here was their cousin with his Malaysian eyes and hair. How damn global he was.
    .
    “Yes, well, love makes fools of us all,” Theresa said.

    “Makes some of us certifiable.” Kennedy managed to make the tone of someone muttering to himself while he was in fact easily heard from the kitchen, just off the dining-room.

    Quickly, Theresa said, “Cal ⸺ er⸺ that ⸺ wasn’t that odd, thinking you’d seen the man before?”

    “I definitely saw someone wearing those clothes.” Cal glanced at Kennedy. He couldn’t blame him. He’d really put his brother through it; people who loved you got dragged through your shit whether you liked it or not. Maybe it was because there were only two of them, maybe it was the eight-year age difference, likely both, but even though he was thirty now, to Kennedy he was still the little brother. “The police think I made a mistake. I didn’t, though.”

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