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Authors: Mari Strachan

Dead Man's Embers

BOOK: Dead Man's Embers
9.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
Also by Mari Strachan
The Earth Hums in B Flat


This digital edition first published by Canongate in 2011

Copyright © Mari Strachan, 2011

The moral right of the author has been asserted

First published in Great Britain as
Blow on a Dead Man's Embers
in 2011 by Canongate Books Ltd, 14 High Street, Edinburgh EH1 1TE

British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available on request from the British Library

ISBN 978 1 84767 531 6
eISBN 978 0 85786 132 0

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Table of Contents


Title Page


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45


Adam, Llio, Cai, a Rachel
hefo cariad mawr

Something is weighing on her breast, squeezing her heart. For a moment Non cannot move, not sure if she is awake or still in a dream. She breathes evenly to keep panic at bay, and her heartbeat steadies. The dream vanishes but the weight remains. She recognises it: it is a sense of dread that is becoming familiar, though quite what it is that she dreads she does not know.

She opens her eyes, then narrows them against the brightness streaming into the bedroom with its threat of another scorching day. In four, no, three days it will be the solstice, so it must still be early for the sun to be this low in the sky. When she is able to move and put her hand out to Davey, all she touches is the cool sheet on his side of the bed. Again.

The open sash window lets in the sweetness of the honeysuckle that clambers around it and the industrious drone of bees moving from lip to lip on the flowers. Non breathes deeply, stretches until her calf muscles tingle, then swings her legs sideways and sits up on the edge of the bed. She reaches for the small, dark brown bottle, uncorks it, tips out thirteen drops of the liquid it contains into a glass, pauses, then adds one more drop, pours water from
the jug onto the drops and swallows the draught in one gulp, grimacing, as she always does, at the bitterness of it in the back of her throat. Every morning she hears her father's voice tell her that her lifeblood is less bitter than the death that will surely claim her if she does not swallow it, the death that is constantly at her shoulder. It is what gives you the gift you possess, Rhiannon, her father would also say. A gift that is as bitter as the drops, a gift that is no gift at all.

As she sits on the side of the bed her heart begins to calm, but the dread that woke her still weighs upon her. She feels as limp as a rag doll as she stands and walks towards the washstand. The heat is enervating; it lies like a thick blanket over every day. She pours water that is already lukewarm from the large jug into the bowl, and splashes her face and neck with it.

She remembers the time before the War when the quiet and warmth would engender a sense of deep contentment in her. It now seems far in the past, that time early in their marriage when she had discovered that Davey was impossible to wake in the mornings, when she would take up her book and tiptoe downstairs to sit in the kitchen or at the open door to the fresh morning garden, breathe deeply of the promise of a new day, and read – until it was time to put her coarse apron on over her nightdress to rack the range and light the fire and wake the house with the noise. A rumpled and sleepy Davey would descend from the bedroom and pretend to chase her out into the garden. That has all gone. The War has taken her husband as surely as if it had killed him, and returned a stranger to her in his place.

She lifts her hairbrush and draws it through her hair. Forty long strokes. Non has no recollection of her father teaching her that rule; that must have come from her sister. She gathers the hair together at her nape and ties it into a large knot. She pulls her
work dress on, fastens the buttons with nimble fingers and neatens the collar in the looking glass above the washstand. She studies her reflection. She, too, has changed: she sees it in her eyes. She has turned into a timorous creature, as different from her true self as Davey is from his. You mouse, she tells herself, are you going to be defeated by this mystery, this puzzle of what is happening to your husband? She stands up straight. She, who has beaten off death every day of her twenty-nine years, will not be beaten by this.


Non makes her way downstairs and pushes open the kitchen door. The sunlight in the hallway streams into the room towards Davey who is crouched beneath the table. The fringe of the blue chenille tablecloth dangles in front of his face, and he peers out through it into the light, shouldering an imaginary rifle.

It is happening again. Is this what woke her? Is it this that she dreads? Non has grown used to the nightmares Davey has at times since his return from the War, when the bedclothes churn into a battlefield as he fights and thrashes and sweats his way through some private torment – nightmares that wake her and drive her from the bed but which Davey denies when she asks him about them. Now, it seems the nightmares have changed from dreams into something more real, more fearful. The first time it happened was Wednesday morning; she will never forget it, she thinks, not for a sparrow's heartbeat. She had woken to find Davey gone from their bed and found him sprawled under the kitchen table, deadly quiet in his concentration as he aimed his rifle at some unseen foe. Non had crawled under the table to him and he had given her a look that chilled her heart and froze her tongue. She had crept away and left him.

She knows that there is nothing to be done now except to leave him. But has she not just resolved that she will not be beaten by the mystery of what is happening to her husband? She knows that he betrayed her when he was away – and it pains her to think of it – but she senses, no, she knows that is not what is haunting Davey through his nightmares; it is something else, something that has to do with fighting the enemy. She draws a chair back from under the table, lifting it to stop it screeching on the flag-stones, positions it so that she can see Davey, and sits on it. She smoothes the tablecloth with the back of her hand. Like life, she thinks, smooth and rough, worn thin so that it is almost a hole in places, plush as if it were new in others. She is uncomfortable. She does not want to sit here on a kitchen chair to watch her husband fight the enemy all over again under the table, but believes she must if she is to understand what happened to him.

This man on the floor is as unlike himself as possible. His hair and his clothes are dishevelled as he crawls around on the flag-stones in the confined space. His eyes are wide open with the whites showing all around, as if he is mad with fear, like a horse Non saw when she was a child. The farmer had shot the horse, said it had turned wild and dangerous. Non flinches each time Davey fires the rifle he imagines he has on his shoulder, the recoil sending him sprawling backwards. He is sweating profusely, his shirt already soaked under his arms and on his back, from whatever endeavours he thinks he is attempting. He mutters and calls out, words and phrases Non cannot understand, which sound sometimes like commands, sometimes like entreaties. He shouts, ‘Down, down', and flings himself face down on the flags. She hears his face thump on the stone and she cringes.

‘Oh, Davey,' she whispers. Her Davey, the real Davey, is a small man, and neat, and this was part of what she had loved about
him from the first time she saw him. Small herself, she did not feel overpowered by him. He was far from being a moneyed man, but he had always made sure that the clothes he wore were clean, mended and ironed. His hair that had a will of its own, springing up from his head in dark brown spikes, was always carefully brushed, and his moustache with its glints of red neatly trimmed and combed.

When she first met him it was as if she had always known him, and yet, it was his son she knew first. Wil was in the Infants class when she came as a student teacher to the local school, as sturdy and quiet a boy at five and a half as he is now at fifteen. She remembers being saddened that first winter when he seemed unmoved by the sudden death of his mother from a cough that had turned rapidly to pneumonia. She had felt a greater sadness at some of the tales that came her way about Grace, tales of callousness and cruelty towards Wil and his small sister.

She looks down at Davey, lying flat now on the flagstones, his shoulders twitching as he sights down the length of his rifle, his forefinger squeezing on the trigger. She had not met him until the following spring; he had come to see if Meg could begin school a little younger than was usual. He had looked into her eyes and smiled at her and she had been lost. She had never thought that she would marry; she had never met a man she would wish to marry. And what man would wish to marry a woman like her who could not bear a child of her own for fear that it would put too great a strain on her weakened heart? Over the year he spent courting her, Davey told her that he had children, he did not need more. He wanted her, she delighted him by being so clever, so different.

And they had been happy, hadn't they? She loved Wil as if he were her own child. Meg she found a little harder to love. Davey's
mother had been glad to relinquish Wil to them, but refused to part with Meg. She'll come round, Davey had said, but Catherine Davies had not done so for a long time. Perhaps there had been a little dark patch creeping in to dampen their happiness even then, Non thinks; perhaps that first year before Osian arrived had not been the idyllic time she had thought it was.

She starts. Are those footsteps on the stairs? She does not want the children to see their father like this. She jumps to her feet but before she can reach the door it opens and Osian comes through into the kitchen, dressed in nothing but his drawers and flicking his penknife open as he walks past her towards the back door. He stops when he sees Davey, and Davey retreats into a crouch, staring at the light glancing from the penknife's blade. Non puts her hand on Osian's arm to guide him away, although she knows that he will cry out at her touch. And so he does, a high-pitched scream that ricochets off the whitewashed walls and reverberates from the flagstones beneath her feet.

BOOK: Dead Man's Embers
9.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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