It’s All Hallows’ Eve. The moon is new and the stars are bright on a cold clear night. Trick and Treaters are long asleep in bed. For a bet, Lucien, slightly drunk, is spending the night alone at the end of the pier. He’s not superstitious, but the stories of the haunted pier on this night of nights have left him on edge. He drinks from a whisky flask.
The tide is out and a vast expanse of glistening mud stretches beyond the end of the Victorian pier to the mouth of the estuary. For the first time, Lucien sees that the mud flats are not flat but full of ridges, hummocks and rills running with streaming water into gullies deep in the mud. He’s astounded that the moonlight is so bright and the mud is beautiful.
David, in his early seventies, is finally preparing his mother’s home for sale. It’s a great sadness to him that he never managed to persuade her to move to a smaller property rather than her large Victorian house. She’d been alone in it for fifty years since his father’s death until her own recent death in her nineties. Her loss still feels raw. No matter how hard David tried, she refused to move; there was always a good reason or an excuse that allowed a further postponement. David finds it ironic that he’s now in the same situation; his children are pressing him and their mother to downsize. He wonders if they know that the familiar makes life more comfortable.
It’s 2022 and Robbie, aged fifteen, is living with his mother, Paula, in a semi-derelict 1960s council house on a vast estate of public housing to the north of the city. Paula describes living there as ‘like being in the Wild West’ where security guards have to protect bus drivers. One bus shelter carries a homemade poster of a policewoman with a noose round her neck. It’s early morning. Robbie and Paula sit on white plastic garden chairs in the freezing kitchen, their hands warmed by steaming mugs of black tea. You’ll get warm when you get to school, Paula says.
Bill is dying of cancer. He’s been through the mill of treatment and despite the best efforts of his GP he won’t enter the hospice and is determined to die in his own bed. He has two carers, one part-time for the day and a full-time night carer, Stefan, a young Russian. Bill likes Stefan, to whom he tells tall stories to fight off his fear of the night and the arrival of the grim reaper.
Andrew Slessor braces himself against the driving wind and snow and presses on in search of shelter. The blizzard roars. His eyelashes freeze. His lungs hurt. He fears he’ll die unless he finds shelter soon. His memory of the OS map is vivid. He reckons he’s near the ruined Crofters’ village where the tragedy unfolded. He stumbles and trips over a low wall of fallen stones. Struggling to his feet in the blizzard, he glimpses the small building that’s his final destination. On arrival, all is as he expected: the door is locked and letters in red paint announce, DANGER KEEP OUT! He takes a key hanging from a nail beside the door. Ignoring the warning, he enters and shuts the door behind him; it immediately blows open in the storm. He forces the door shut against the wind and locks it tight.
For over fifty years Axel Strummer’s granite headstone remained blank – not even his name was inscribed. This was not an oversight but a result of Axel’s traumatic funeral and internment. For Axel’s son, Proctor, it could have been yesterday when his love for his father was tested to the limit.
A small congregation is assembled for the funeral service in St Mary’s church. Proctor and Rosanna, Axel’s widow, are sitting on chairs near the catafalque on which Axel’s coffin rests. A younger woman sits down at the end of their row.
In 1968, when David is twenty-two, his mother, Bethany, a single parent, dies. Among her effects he finds a letter, ‘To my dearest David.’ Until then, all David knew was that his father, Richard, died before he was born. He had no idea that Reg, his father’s brother, had murdered him. Shock throws David into a rage of an intensity he never thought possible. He finally understands why he hasn’t an extended family and why he and his mother took on the world alone. David has no one to ask why the murder took place.
Andrew, Fay and their five-year-old daughter, Sylvie, are travelling along the A40, when Sylvie looks out of the window, and asks, What’s that funny pointed hill thing? That’s Sugar Loaf Mountain, Andrew replies. Is it sugar? Sylvie asks. Might be, Andrew laughs. Fay smiles as she drives. Are you feeling better? she asks Andrew. Just indigestion. It’ll be those pasties we had for lunch. Why’s it called Sugar Loaf Mountain? Sylvie asks. Maybe Daddy can tell you a story about it at bedtime, Fay says. Will you, Daddy? Will you?
In 1972, Ahmad was training to be a teacher in London where he was nourished by the many galleries and museums. Today, officially retired, Ahmad is a volunteer teacher in Tiaz, once the cultural capital of the Yemen and now on the front-line in the civil war between Saudi-backed government forces and Huthi rebels. From a distance, he stares at ‘his’ bombed out school.
Andrew remembers it as a splendid October day, a Sunday – his father’s day of rest. The sky is blue. The sun is bright. The air is crisp and still. The world feels clean and sharp. October, his birthday month, is when all is possible with nothing to prevent him from conquering his evolving world. The white lines of the rugby pitch are almost three dimensional against the close-cropped verdant grass, while the stark white rugby posts stand to attention.