ShortBookandScribes #BlogTour #Extract from Midland by James Flint @JamesFlint @unbounders
Welcome to my stop on the blog tour for Midland by James Flint. I have a fabulous extract to share with you today. My thanks to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for the place on the tour.
On his way back from a meeting one day, investment banker Alex Wold finds himself standing
up to his waist in the Thames, trying to guide a lost bottlenose whale back out to the sea. Later, as he’s drying out his suit and shoes, the news comes through that Tony Nolan – his mother’s ex-husband – has died of a sudden heart attack.
Alex wonders if the universe is urging him to resolve a long-running feud with his
environmentalist brother Matthew, and with the Wolds and the Nolans all heading back to
Warwickshire for Tony’s funeral he now has an opportunity to do just that. But he finds Matthew as angry as ever, unable to relinquish his obsession with Caitlin, Tony’s troubled daughter, whose actions force both families to take an uncomfortable journey into the past.
In Midland, the acclaimed novelist James Flint carries out a devastating exploration of what
binds families together, and what tears them apart.
ALEX WOLD FOUND OUT about Tony Nolan’s death at the end of an already tumultuous week. First had come the confirmation of his wife Mia’s second pregnancy. Great news, wonderful news, another person in the world, another child. Mia seemed happy, he was happy. The usual hurdles had yet to be overcome, of course. But Mia was healthy, sensible and strong, and Alex didn’t doubt that Rufus would soon have a baby brother or sister to keep him company, and that he himself would be heading up a family unit that was solid and foursquare.
A couple of days after the test had shown positive he’d been travelling back along the Embankment in a taxi when something strange occurred. The traffic had come to a standstill. Alongside the hold-up the entire pavement was jammed with people all of whom, for no reason that Alex could readily perceive, were looking out towards the river.
Incapable of sitting by while something interesting was happening, Alex abandoned the cab and insinuated his way into the crowd until he reached the concrete parapet that ran along the water’s edge. The tide was out and people were also gathered on the slick mudbanks that had emerged; one man, dressed in a dark blue fleece, was actually standing up to his waist in the water.
All eyes were on three small boats that bobbed in an awkward configuration a few dozen yards from the shore. Why, Alex didn’t know.
He bent his head to the schoolboy standing next to him. ‘What’s going on?’
‘There’s a whale.’ ‘What?’
‘In the river. There’s a whale. It’s come in from the sea.’ Another boy, dressed like his companion in creased black trousers
, battered black trainers and a sky-blue hoodie with his school’s logo on the back, was eager to prove he knew all about it too.
‘It’s lost. Must’ve swum in from the ocean by mistake. They’re trying to get it back before it swims onto the mud and gets stuck. It was up by the Houses of Parliament before, so it’s going back I think.’
Alex glanced from water to boy and back again. As his gaze travelled to the river for the second time a hot cloud of water- saturated air jetted upwards about fifty metres from where he stood. At its base he could just make out a blowhole, set in its square of rubber sheen. Once, twice, three times it gasped, and on the third respiration a rhombus of flesh, dark as the mudflats, broke the surface a car’s length away. There it was. The whale.
For possibly the first time since he’d joined Sovereign Brothers eight years previously, Alex’s mind stopped chewing on the matter of his next trade. Pushing back through the bodies, he worked his way around to a stone staircase that led down onto the beach. He had a fight to descend – the steps were crammed – but with a combination of elbows and excuse-mes and a little aid from gravity, the slime left by the retreating waters was soon sucking at his hand-stitched leather loafers and oozing its way through the turn- ups of his bespoke wool flannel suit.
It was a perfect January day. The spokes of the London Eye shone with the glycerine light of the low winter sun. Big Ben stood cold and proud above the traffic, rendered timeless by the refrigerated air. News helicopters hovered at the old clock’s shoulders like winged familiars, their spinning rotors patiently processing the sky, almost but not quite achieving thought. And the river shone beneath the Victorian arches of the bridges, slapping and sucking at the weedy brickwork as the tide went out, grinning and gurgling as it slowly slackened its grip.
In the midst of all this beauty the whale seemed like hope, like a conciliatory messenger sent upstream by the senate of the seas. Here they were, the people of England, gathering to greet it, to embrace it, to send it back from whence it came with tidings of peace and love. Festival was in the air. People were happy and amazed. People were good, the universe was good. Today had become one of those rare days on which the laws of combat were suspended and, for a brief period, death was not the truth of things.
Alex was swept up by it all in a manner he hadn’t experienced for years. Perhaps it was the news of a second child finally sinking in, perhaps just the energy of the moment, but standing here on the chilly silver mud he felt alive with enthusiasm, abuzz in root and branch. He felt – wow – he felt young. Not that he’d noticed feeling old, particularly, but until this moment he hadn’t realised quite how tuneless his existence had become. The brushed-steel lifts and glass- sided corridors of the investment bank’s offices in Aldgate, the enervating, dehydrating hours he spent in business class, the long list of deals and trades that had seemed so exciting at the start but felt automatic, with even the double-plays and kickbacks hardwired into their routines . . . he was tiring of it, and had been working so hard that he hadn’t noticed the tiredness creeping in.
It was a pitfall of finance. You spent so much time living in the future, so much time planning for the day when you cashed in your chips and walked away to pursue a more pleasurable life- style, that you forgot to enjoy the money you were so assiduously making. And then by the time you did walk away the stress and the fifteen-hour days had sapped your health so much that you were already half-dead. This was how you became a grey man, Alex reflected, on and on, round and round until your life was summed up by a spreadsheet and you were felled by cancer or a coronary aged fifty-five. That was Alex Wold, class of ’91, a good guy and NPV(A) = (1-(1+r)-n)P/r. That was how you lost your soul.
He should have noticed when sex with Mia, beautiful Mia, had started to become perfunctory, when his libido had begun to leaf back through a few pages from the secret diaries of the bad old days. The black Filofax, as his main man Freddie Winston – cur- rently making serious money over at HSBC – liked to refer to it. Only idle, that leafing, only a perusal, but it was a warning sign, a vulnerability indicator, and he’d have done well to pay it more attention that he did.
So he emailed Patricia from his BlackBerry, instructed her to reschedule his meetings for that afternoon, and turned his attention to the four tonnes of eternity now thrashing and bobbing in a panicked spiral thirty metres from the water’s edge.
The whale didn’t disappoint. Alex had never been this close to one before. He’d waited in the restaurant on the quay that one time in Montauk when he’d had the opportunity. He’d wanted to go on the boat trip, but he knew from bitter experience he had no sea legs and so stayed and ordered beer and chowder while Lucía and Carlos from Sovereign’s New York office made the trip without him. Both of them gone now in the Twin Towers, while he’d been cavorting with Mia on a beach in Brazil. Christ, what a waste. The memory of the two of them was suddenly physical, a ferrous taste around the tongue, an actual lump in the throat.
Then the bottlenose broke the water and triggered Samuel Barber’s Agnus Dei, one of the pieces Alex favoured when he needed to float his mind free of the hopeless matrix of sclerotic rush-hour roads, to start playing unbidden in his head as clearly as if he was listening to it while sitting in his Porsche.
His reverie continued while the whale breathed and dis- appeared. When it surfaced a second time, perhaps half as distant as before, the people on the parapet started shouting: ‘Go back! Go back!’ and the man waist-deep in the water began to splash and wave his arms. Before he knew what he was doing, Alex was plunging forward into the river. Cheers went up behind him as, one shoe already sucked from his foot, he pushed into the oily swirl, lungs constricting as the ancient river licked round his legs. Panting with the unexpected effort, he made fists of his hands, set his jaw, and strode on – seven strides, eight – until he drew level with the other man.
‘Come to help?’ the stranger said cheerily, as if they were standing in the park trying to launch a kite.
‘Yes, I suppose so,’ answered Alex, his voice weaker than usual in the face of the Thames. ‘What’s the plan?’
‘Trying to keep the fella from beaching himself on the mud. This here’s the edge of the bank. After that it drops off pretty fast.’ He grinned. ‘I don’t recommend you go any further out, in other words. I did, and I nearly went under.’ He pointed to a high-water mark that ran across his fleece at the level of his armpits. ‘There’s quite an undertow.’
Alex could feel it even now, tugging at his feet. The famously treacherous current, responsible for dragging so many thousands to their deaths: swimmers, suicides, drunken boatmen, unwary children, foolish dogs, luckless rats . . . and maybe even the odd whale. This one though, this one they were going to save. He could feel it. He’d saved many things in his career. Once he’d saved an entire pension fund through a spectacularly audacious piece of hedging, securing his first six-figure bonus in the process – nice work if you can get it. He’d lost things too, of course, though he’d learned to brush these to one side. There had been some moral compunction in the beginning – the time he’d helped asset-strip a business, a family-owned retooling operation, he still remembered that one, the awful calls and letters from the eldest son. Or the time he’d sat by as the company suppressed a damning health and safety report on a chemical plant outside of Merthyr Tydfil in order to maintain the share price. But the culture at Sovereign Brothers was focused on the bigger picture. They knew, and soon he knew too, that the world was at war. The fleets and armies were companies and banks and brands and corporations, and Britain’s survival as a nation depended on her ability to keep marshalling her forces as effectively as her numerous competitors marshalled theirs. There was no time for sentiment. No quarter could be given.
This thought reminded Alex of a conversation with his first boss at the investment bank, a veteran fund manager called Peter Bedway who had built his reputation (and considerable fortune) on the basis of his successful reading of the post-Big-Bang boom. Alex had been working under his supervision for about a year when the press began to fluster about a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan. This was significant, because the fund that Alex was helping to coordinate was, at that time, very exposed to Taiwanese steel.
‘Why aren’t we getting out?’ he had finally demanded of his superior, as the sabre rattling had been ratcheted up to what was in his eyes an unbearable level of intensity.
‘There won’t be a war,’ Bedway had replied.
‘How can you be so sure? There are troop movements on the mainland, the Americans have evidence of missiles being re- targeted . . .’
‘There won’t be a war.’
‘I don’t see how you can claim to know that.’
Bedway turned from his screen and stared at Alex with his disarmingly languid, almost bovine gaze. ‘Tell me something,’ he said. ‘What’s the price of rice been doing the last twelve months?’
Alex hesitated, then bashed a few words into his keyboard and hit return. A matrix of figures flashed up. He ran his eye down the relevant column.
‘Nothing much.’ ‘Exactly. So no war.’ Alex looked blank.
‘Look. China, despite being the world’s largest rice producer, has so many mouths to feed that it’s a net importer of rice. If it were to invade Taiwan there’d be an international outcry and in all likelihood the UN would impose sanctions, making it very hard for China to buy rice. Even if there were no sanctions, sellers would start to charge a premium, knowing that the Chinese would have no choice but to pay. The Chinese government understands this, and would therefore be buying extra rice to stockpile against that eventuality. That would be pushing up the global price – not a lot, maybe, if they were doing it carefully, but a bit. But the price has been relatively stable. So the Chinese are not buying rice, even surreptitiously. Ergo: no war.’
There was something priestly about Bedway. He was quite a short man with a delicate frame and a large head, and what was left of his hair was cropped so short as to make him effectively bald. He wore expensive suits but because of his size they seemed not to quite fit him, which lent him a monkish air and contributed to his slightly pious aura. He lived and breathed Sovereign Brothers, was often in the office till two or three in the morning then back in at seven, and as he actively enjoyed the denial of self this entailed it was an example he assumed, as a general rule mistakenly, that others were happy to follow.
Alex had been impressed by him and scared by him in turns. Bedway apparently derived all his personal satisfaction from his job. He was a vegetarian and even at big social events had never been known to drink more than a single glass of wine. And then, boom, one day he had died from a massive stroke aged – guess what? Fifty-five. To cap it off it had happened in the office. The cleaners had found him late one night, slumped back in his Aeron chair, his expressionless face illuminated by the Nikkei prices still ticking across his Bloomberg screen. All that calm . . . in the end it turned out to be little more than bottled stress. It was a cautionary tale.
There was a roar as the surface of the river burst open and the whale surfaced a mere three metres in front of Alex, like a U-boat from one of the many war films he’d watched as child. The animal’s hide was so taut, so perfect and plastic, that it didn’t seem possible that it belonged to anything alive.
‘Go on,’ said the fleece man in a sensible voice, loud and calm and firm. ‘Back you go.’ He rattled the water with his palms, an action which Alex, coming forward now, began to imitate. It felt ludicrous, standing there flapping at this miraculous beast as if it were a farmyard cow, but it was having an effect and instead of coming further towards the bank the whale slowed, raised its beak at the two men, and cawed like a bird. Alex had only ever heard one thing like it before in his life: the first sound that Rufus had made when he was born. Suddenly this creature from nightmares, from other dimensions and dark, undiscovered lagoons, was some- thing that he understood. Tears stung his eyes.
‘It’s okay,’ he said. ‘It’s all right.’
But the whale didn’t think so. It cried again and raised its tail and with a slap that would have felled a bigger man than Alex it cuffed the water and propelled itself away in a violent curve. And so back it went towards the centre of the river.
As the molten body passed him, Alex reached out his hand and touched the creature’s flank. Just a second’s contact, but it was enough. The eely body felt elemental, felt like fire, and it warmed him sufficiently to keep him standing sentry in the water for another hour. By the time he got home late that afternoon, how- ever, he was shivering. His BlackBerry had been ruined by the water, so he hadn’t called ahead, and Mia couldn’t believe it when he slopped into the hallway, carrying his ruined loafers in his hand. He then spent an hour following the whale’s progress on Sky News while regaling a slightly bewildered Rufus with the tale of his adventure.
Mia was hardly less bewildered than the three-year-old. She thought it greatly out of character, this sudden sentimental con- cern her husband was displaying for the welfare of an animal. And now here he was, absconding from work and risking drowning and exposure to goodness knew what admixture of waterborne diseases. It was out of the ordinary, to say the very least.
Born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1968, James Flint is the internationally acclaimed author of three novels: Habitus (1998), 52 Ways to Magic America (2000) and The Book of Ash (2008). In 2002, his short story ‘The Nuclear Train’ was adapted for Channel 4, while his journalism has appeared in The Times, the Guardian and Dazed & Confused among many others. From 2009 to 2012 he was Editor-in-Chief of the Telegraph’s weekly world edition, and he is currently CEO of the health communications start-up Hospify.