Read Damascus Online

Authors: Richard Beard


BOOK: Damascus

Copyright © 1998, 2011 by Richard Beard

All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without the express written consent of the publisher, except in the case of brief excerpts in critical reviews or articles. All inquiries should be addressed to Arcade Publishing, 307 West 36th Street, 11th Floor, New York, NY 10018.

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Arcade Publishing® is a registered trademark of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.®, a Delaware corporation.

This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available on file.

ISBN: 978-1-61145-658-5


Also by Richard Beard:

X20; A Novel of (Not) Smoking


To Laurence Nagy


‘A newspaper is a parcel containing many individual packets. Anybody who read them all would be mad.'

—The Times
, 11/1/93


It is the first of November 1993 and somewhere in the Kingdom, in Quarndon or Northampton or Newry or York, in Kirkcaldy or Yeovil or Lincoln or Neath, a baby girl is born. Her name is Hazel. Her father Mr Burns, a salesman, puts the tip of his finger inside her tiny fist. He waves his head from side to side and puts on a childish voice and says:

‘Who's the most beautiful girl in the whole wide world then?'

It is the first of November 1993 and somewhere in the Kingdom, in Harlow or Widnes or Swansea or Ayr, in Reading or Glentoran or Nantwich or Hull, a baby boy is born. His name is Spencer. His father Mr Kelly, a warehouseman, circles a tiny upper arm between his thumb and index finger. He frowns and says:

‘You're not as big as your brother was.'


All regions will have a mostly cloudy day though some bright and sunny intervals could develop.

THE TIMES 11/1/93

11/1/93 M

Hazel kissed Spencer's shoulder and then covered him with the blanket.

‘Amazing,' she said. ‘Unbelievable.'

She re-positioned her cheek against his outstretched arm, pressed her body up against his, and closed her eyes. ‘Let's spend the whole day in bed.'

An amber street-light hummed outside the curtainless window. On one side of the bed, which was a single mattress on a wooden floor, Hazel's discarded dress invented a charcoal-coloured landscape. On the other side, over the back of a chair, a silver space-suit flopped limply. A toppled stack of plastic-backed library books paved a trail towards the door.

Spencer, eyes wide and awake, wondered if this made him a changed man. Could a single event change everything? It had all happened so suddenly, and so definitively, but before he could make any sense of it her hand brushed up across his chest, reaching his cheek. That was nice, he couldn't deny it but then uninterrupted niceness had been part of the problem the first time around.

'The whole day,' she said, murmuring it into his skin, ‘in bed. You and me.'

‘All day?'

‘I'll allow you to get up from time to time,' she said, ‘to make me nice things to eat.'

Spencer stared up at the emerging whiteness of the ceiling, and pinned to the wall above his head, a single red-and-white-striped knitted glove. He tried to remember what it had been like being alive this time yesterday, before he'd ever woken up with someone he hardly knew, right now, in the present tense, her in the bed beside him with her breath curling up in his ear. He told himself not to panic. This type of thing happened to other people all the time.

The street-light in the window turned itself off, leaving behind the greyish yellow of dawn and the beginning of a London day. Spencer turned the back of his hand against Hazel's hip-bone, and waited for the warmth of her skin to spread through his fingers. It was true, then. Here he was in his own bed, her beside him, neither of them wearing any clothes. It therefore couldn't be long now before the light fattening in the window made her open her eyes and complain that this could never have happened. How could an apparently adult and fine-looking blonde woman with a job and a portable telephone possibly end up naked in bed with an unemployed warehouseman? Spencer ought, therefore, to be making the most of the fact that she was half-asleep and fully naked and wanted them to spend the whole day together. In bed.

‘I can't,' he said, immediately wishing he hadn't. He stared past the flat red fingers of the woollen glove. ‘I have a hundred and one things to do today.'

'Ignore them all, one to a hundred and one.'

‘I have to show some Italians round the house. I have to make William his breakfast.'


‘He lives in the shed.'

‘Well do that and then afterwards come back to bed.'

‘It's my niece's birthday. She's coming for lunch. I have to go and fetch her.'

‘Fine. I'll wait for you here.'

‘And,' Spencer said, wisely resisting the real reason he had to get up and go out, ‘my library books are due back.'

‘Big day,' Hazel said, pulling herself a little closer. ‘It's half-past six in the morning. Let's just stay in bed.'

‘I'm usually up by now. I should get up.'

She stretched her leg possessively over his stomach, kissed his neck, and told him everything was going to be alright. Then she pushed herself up onto an elbow. She touched a strand of pale hair away from her eye. She said:

‘You look completely terrified.'

‘It's all been very sudden,' Spencer said.

She licked the tip of a finger, and wiped it across his cheek-bone. ‘I feel like I've known you for ages. It was amazing, wasn't it?'

‘Yes,' Spencer said. ‘It was amazing.'

She was right. It had been amazing. It had been a complete disaster, obviously, but it had still been pretty damn amazing. She looked from one of his brown eyes to the other, and asked him if he was frightened.

‘No,' Spencer said. ‘Sometimes.'

‘Don't be frightened,' she said. ‘We're not in any hurry. Let's just take it one day at a time.'

It is the first of November 1993 and somewhere in Britain, in Alloa or Arundel or Linfield or Dereham, in Manchester or Rotherham or Maesteg or Goole, Hazel Burns is ten years old and this is a sunny interval. Seagulls, sweeping in from the sea, along the coast, far and unexpectedly inland, swing vigilant and white in the high wind, the sky blue and wide behind them. Sometimes, as a sharp reminder that this is the here and now, the seagulls cry out, loud and fading in the wind. Mr Burns, Hazel's father, has hired (for the afternoon) the clubhouse terrace of the local golf course. A railway embankment shadows the eighteenth fairway and an occasional train rattles by, overlooking this small celebration of Mr Burns's Successful Selling ‘93 International European Award for Salesperson of the Year, sponsored by Queen's Moat House or W.H. Smith or the Co-operative Insurance Society. A dedicated, distinguished-looking man, Mr Burns likes travel, meeting people and making friends. He often wishes he could spend more time with his family.

He introduces a new secretary to his two young daughters:

‘This is Hazel, who is ten, and Olive, short for Olivia, who is eight. My brilliant daughters. The most beautiful daughters any father ever had in the history of the whole wide world.'

Hazel grins and stands up. The breeze flutters the skirt of her best white dress and pushes at her brown hair, which she tries to keep in place with her hands. Olive, wearing an identical dress, sits at a table reading
The Secret Garden
The Wind in the Willows
The Water Babies
, her legs swinging happily beneath her. She sometimes picks grapes or cherries or orange segments from a bowl on the table. She wears glasses with clear frames and Hazel wishes she didn't.

‘So,' says Daddy's secretary (cream blouse, dark shortish skirt, good with children), ‘what does Hazel want to be when she grows up?'

Mr Burns has spied a colleague and he really must. He does, and his wife takes his place because she's naturally suspicious of a new secretary, especially near her children.

‘Hazel wants to be a lawyer,' Hazel's Mum says, and Daddy's secretary says, 'That's a nice ambition, isn't it?' and Hazel says: ‘No, not really. I'd prefer to be an Olympic freestyle swimmer. Actually.'

Mummy puts a hand on Hazel's shoulder. ‘Or a doctor,' she says. ‘A lawyer or a doctor.'

‘Can we go swimming now?'

‘Olive's just the same. She has a reading age of fifteen. She wants to go to Oxford or Cambridge to train as a lawyer or a doctor.'

‘I want to be a swimmer,' Hazel insists.

‘Good for you,' says the secretary, and then notices the look on Mrs Burns's face. ‘I mean if that's what you want.' She makes excuses and wanders away.

‘Really, darling,' Hazel's mother says, ‘it's about time you grew up a little.'

‘I don't want to be a lawyer.'

‘Of course you do. You have to start living in the real world like everyone else.'

‘I could be a footballer then.'

‘Please, Hazel, don't start.'

‘Daddy says I'm good enough.'

Mrs Burns sighs. She looks round the terrace for her husband but he's nowhere to be seen. Then she looks for his new secretary in her white, flimsy, almost transparent blouse, because Hazel's mother has no doubt that anxiety is the right response to life. Her timidity is therefore very assured, almost aggressive.

‘And besides,' she says to Hazel, ‘swimming pools are full of other people's infections.'

She checks that both her daughters have taken their various health capsules and vitamin supplements. Then she advises Olive to chew her fruit more thoroughly, because she devoutly believes a mother can't be too careful. Hazel notices that when Olive eats, her glasses move up and down.

‘I want to go swimming,' she says, ‘it's not fair.'

‘We're not going swimming. You should read more, like your sister, and then you might get a scholarship to big school.'

A short train makes an unscheduled stop on the embankment, and Hazel sees a small boy wearing a football shirt pressing his face against the window. She bets he can do whatever he wants, every day of the week, including eat handfuls of Bourbon biscuits or Jaffa cakes or Cadbury's chocolate. He probably goes swimming whenever he likes, all the time.

‘If I can't go swimming,' Hazel says, ‘I'm going to make funny faces and stupid noises until all Daddy's friends think I'm a nutcase.'

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