A Passage North, Anuk Arudpragasam

The present, we assume, is eternally before us, one of the few things in life from which we cannot be parted. It overwhelms us in the painful first moments of entry into the world, when it is still too new to be managed or negotiated, remains by our side during childhood and adolescence, in those years before the weight of memory and expectation, and so it is sad and a little unsettling to see that we become, as we grow older, much less capable of touching, grazing, or even glimpsing it, that the closest we seem to get to the present are those brief moments we stop to consider the spaces our bodies are occupying, the intimate warmth of the sheets in which we wake, the scratched surface of the window on a train taking us somewhere else, as if the only way we can hold time still is by trying physically to prevent the objects around us from moving. The present, we realise, eludes us more and more as the years go by, showing itself for fleeting moments before losing us in the world’s incessant movement, fleeing the second we look away and leaving scarcely a trace of its passing, or this at least is how it usually seems in retrospect, when in the next brief moment of consciousness, the next occasion we are able to hold things still, we realise how much time has passed since we were last aware of ourselves, when we realise how many days, weeks, and months have slipped by without our consent.

Second Place, Rachel Cusk

I once told you, Jeffers, about the time I met the devil on a train leaving Paris, and about how after that meeting the evil that usually lies undisturbed beneath the surface of things rose up and disgorged itself over every part of life. It was like a contamination, Jeffers: it got into everything and turned it bad. I don’t think I realised how many parts of life there were, until each one of them began to release its capacity for badness. I know you’ve always known about such things, and have written about them, even when others didn’t want to hear and found it tiresome to dwell on what was wicked and wrong. Nonetheless you carried on, building a shelter for people to use when things went wrong for them too. And go wrong they always do!

Fear is a habit like any other, and habits kill what is essential in ourselves. I was left with a kind of blankness, Jeffers, from those years of being afraid. I kept on expecting things to jump out at me – I kept expecting to hear the same laughter of that devil I heard the day he pursued me up and down the train. It was the middle of the afternoon and very hot, and the carriages were crowded enough that I thought I could get away from him merely by going and sitting somewhere else. But every time I moved my seat, a few minutes later there he’d be, sprawled across from me and laughing. What did he want with me, Jeffers?

The Promise, Damon Galgut

The moment the metal box speaks her name, Amor knows it’s happened. She’s been in a tense, headachy mood all day, almost like she had a warning in a dream but can’t remember what it is. Some sign or image, just under the surface. Trouble down below. Fire underground. But when the words are said to her aloud, she doesn’t believe them. She closes her eyes and shakes her head. No, no. It can’t be true, what her aunt has just told her. Nobody is dead. It’s a word, that’s all. She looks at the word, lying there on the desk like an insect on its back, with no explanation. This is in Miss Starkey’s office, where the voice over the Tannoy told her to go. Amor has been waiting and waiting for this moment for so long, has imagined it so many times, that it already seems like a fact. But now that the moment has really come, it feels far away and dreamy. It hasn’t happened, not actually. And especially not to Ma, who will always, always be alive.

The Sweetness of Water, Nathan Harris

An entire day had passed since George Walker had spoken to his wife. He’d taken to the woods that very morning, tracking an animal that had eluded him since his childhood, and now night was falling. He’d seen the animal in his mind’s eye upon waking, and tracking it carried a sense of adventure so satisfying that all day he could not bear the thought of returning home. This had been the first of such excursions all spring, and tramping through splintered pine needles and mushrooms swollen from the morning rain, he’d come upon a patch of land he’d yet to explore in full. The animal, he was sure, was always one step away from falling into his line of sight.

The land his father had passed down to him was over two hundred acres. The large red oaks and walnut trees that surrounded his home could dim the sun into nothing more than a soft flicker in the sky passing between their branches. Many of them as familiar as signposts, long studied over many years from childhood on.

Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro

When we were new, Rosa and I were mid-store, on the magazines table side, and could see through more than half of the window. So we were able to watch the outside – the office workers hurrying by, the taxis, the runners, the tourists, Beggar Man and his dog, the lower part of the RPO Building. Once we were more settled, Manager allowed us to walk up to the front until we were right behind the window display, and then we could see how tall the RPO Building was. And if we were there at just the right time, we would see the Sun on his journey, crossing between the building tops from our side over to the RPO Building side.

When I was lucky enough to see him like that, I’d lean my face forward to take in as much of his nourishment as I could, and if Rosa was with me, I’d tell her to do the same. After a minute or two, we’d have to return to our positions, and when we were new, we used to worry that because we often couldn’t see the Sun from mid-store, we’d grow weaker and weaker. Boy AF Rex, who was alongside us then, told us there was nothing to worry about, that the Sun had ways of reaching us wherever we were. He pointed to the floorboards and said, ‘That’s the Sun’s pattern right there. If you’re worried, you can just touch it and get strong again.’

An Island, Karen Jennings

It was the first time that an oil drum had washed up on the scattered pebbles of the island shore. Other items had arrived over the years – ragged shirts, bits of rope, cracked lids from plastic lunchboxes, braids of synthetic material made to resemble hair. There had been bodies too, as there was today. The length of it stretched out beside the drum, one hand reaching forward as though to indicate that they had made the journey together and did not now wish to be parted.

Samuel saw the drum first, through one of the small windows as he made his way down the inside of the lighthouse tower that morning. He had to walk with care. The stone steps were ancient, worn smooth, their valleyed centres ready to trip him up. He had inserted metal handholds into those places where the cement had allowed, but the rest of the descent was done with arms outstretched, fingers brushing the rough sides in support.

A Town Called Solace, Mary Lawson

There were four boxes. Big ones. They must have lots of things in them because they were heavy, you could tell by the way the man walked when he carried them in, stooped over, knees bent. He brought them right into Mrs Orchard’s house, next door to Clara’s, that first evening and put them on the floor in the living room and just left them there. That meant the boxes didn’t have necessary things in them, things he needed straight away like pyjamas, or he’d have unpacked them.

The boxes were in the middle of the floor, which made Clara fidgety. Every time the man came into the living room he had to walk around them. If he’d put them against a wall he wouldn’t have to do that and it would have looked much neater. And why would he bring them in from his car and then not unpack them? At first Clara had thought it meant that he was delivering them for Mrs Orchard and she would unpack them herself when she got home. But she hadn’t come home and the boxes were still there and so was the man, who didn’t belong.

No One is Talking About This, Patricia Lockwood

She opened the portal, and the mind met her more than halfway. Inside, it was tropical and snowing, and the first flake of the blizzard of everything landed on her tongue and melted.

Close-ups of nail art, a pebble from outer space, a tarantula’s compound eyes, a storm like canned peaches on the surface of Jupiter, Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters, a chihuahua perched on a man’s erection, a garage door spray-painted with the words STOP! DON’T EMAIL MY WIFE!

Why did the portal feel so private, when you only entered it when you needed to be everywhere?

She felt along the solid green marble of the day for the hairline crack that might let her out. This could not be forced. Outside, the air hung swagged and the clouds sat in piles of couch stuffing, and in the south of the sky there was a tender spot, where a rainbow wanted to happen.

The Fortune Men, Nadifa Mohamed

Tiger Bay, February 1952

‘The King is dead. Long live the Queen.’ The announcer’s voice crackles from the wireless and winds around the rapt patrons of Berlin’s Milk Bar as sinuously as the fog curls around the mournful street lamps, their wan glow barely illuminating the cobblestones.

The noise settles as milkshakes and colas clink against Irish coffees, and chairs scrape against the black-and-white tiled floor.

Berlin hammers a spoon against the bar and calls out with his lion tamer’s bark, ‘Raise your glasses, ladies and gentlemen, and send off our old King to Davy Jones’s Locker.’

‘He’ll meet many of our men down there,’ replies Old Ismail, ‘he better write his apologies on the way down.’

‘I b-b-b-et he wr-wr-wr-ote them on his d-d-d-eathbed,’ a punter cackles.

Through the rock ’n’ roll and spitting espresso machine Berlin hears someone calling his name. ‘Maxa tiri?’ he asks as Mahmood Mattan pushes through the crowd at the bar.

‘I said, get me another coffee.’

Bewilderment, Richard Powers

But we might never find them? We’d set up the scope on the deck, on a clear autumn night, on the edge of one of the last patches of darkness in the eastern U.S. Darkness this good was hard to come by, and so much darkness in one place lit up the sky. We pointed the tube through a gap in the trees above our rented cabin. Robin pulled his eye from the eyepiece – my sad, singular, newly turning nine-year-old, in trouble with this world.

China Room, Sunjeev Sahota

Mehar is not so obedient a fifteen-year-old that she won’t try to uncover which of the three brothers is her husband. Already, the morning after the wedding, and despite nervous, trembling hands, she combines varying amounts of lemon, garlic and spice in their side plates of sliced onions, and then attempts to detect the particular odour on the man who visits later that same night, invisible to her in the dark. It proves inconclusive, the strongest smell by far her fear, so she tries again after overhearing one of the trio complaining about the calluses on his hands. Her concentration is fierce when her husband’s palm next strokes her naked arm, but then, too, she isn’t certain. Maybe all male hands feel so rough, so clumsily eager and dry.

Great Circle, Maggie Shipstead

Little America III, Ross Ice Shelf, Antarctica
March 4, 1950

I was born to be a wanderer. I was shaped to the earth like a seabird to a wave. Some birds fly until they die. I have made a promise to myself: My last descent won’t be the tumbling helpless kind but a sharp gannet plunge – a dive with intent, aimed at something deep in the sea.

I’m about to depart. I will try to pull the circle up from below, bringing the end to meet the beginning. I wish the line were a smooth meridian, a perfect, taut hoop, but our course was distorted by necessity: the indifferent distribution of islands and airfields, the plane’s need for fuel.

I don’t regret anything, but I will if I let myself. I can think only about the plane, the wind, and the shore, so far away, where land begins again. The weather is improving. We’ve fixed the leak as best we can. I will go soon. I hate the never-ending day. The sun circles me like a vulture. I want a respite of stars.

Light Perpetual, Francis Spufford

The light is grey and sullen; a smoulder, a flare choking on the soot of its own burning, and leaking only a little of its power into the visible spectrum. The rest is heat and motion. But for now the burn-line still creeps inside the warhead’s casing. It is a thread-wide front of change propagating outward from the electric detonator, through the heavy mass of amatol. In front a yellow-brown solid, slick and brittle as toffee: behind, a seething boil of separate atoms, violently relieved of all the bonds between that made them trinitrotoluene and ammonium nitrate, and just about to settle back into the simplest of molecular partnerships. Soon they will be gases. Hot gases, hotter than molten metal, far hotter; and suddenly, churningly abundant; and so furiously compacted now into a space too small for them that they would burst the casing imminently on their own. If the casing were still going to be there. If it were not itself going to disappear into a steel mist the instant the burn-line reaches it.