Authors: Matt Haig
The Possession of Mr Cave
The Last Family in England
The Dead Fathers Club
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Published by Jonathan Cape 2008
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Copyright © Matt Haig 2008
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and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work
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First published in Great Britain in 2008 by
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If there is anything that we wish to change in the child, we
should first examine it and see whether it is not something
that could better be changed in ourselves.
Carl Gustav Jung,
The Development of Personality
But the deep deep tragedies of infancy, as when the child's
hands were unlinked for ever from his mother's neck, or his
lips for ever from his sister's kisses, these remain lurking
below all, and these lurk to the last.
Thomas De Quincey,
'Suspiria de Profundis: The Palimpsest'
Of course, you know where it begins.
It begins the way life begins, with the sound of screaming.
I was upstairs, at my desk, balancing the books. I recall
being in a rather buoyant mood, having sold that afternoon
a mid-Victorian drop-leaf table for a most welcome amount.
It must have been half past seven. The sky outside the window
was particularly beautiful, I remember thinking. One of those
glorious May sunsets that crams all the beauty of the day into
its dying moments.
Now, where were you? Yes: your bedroom. You were practising
your cello, as you had been since Reuben had left to
meet his friends at the tennis courts.
At the time I heard it, the scream, I had already lowered
my gaze towards the park. I think I must have been looking
over at the horse chestnuts, rather than the empty climbing
frame, because I hadn't noticed anyone on East Mount Road.
There was some kind of numerical discrepancy I was trying
to solve; I can't remember what precisely.
Oh, I could hold that scene just there. I could write ten
thousand words about that sunset, about that park, about the
trivial queries of my profit and loss accounts. You see, as I
write I am back inside that moment, I am back there in that
room, wrapped up warm in that unknowing contentment.
For this pen to push that evening on, to get to the moment
where the sound of the scream actually meant something,
seems a kind of crime. And yet I have to tell you how it was,
exactly as I saw it, because this was the end and the start of
everything, wasn't it? So come on, Terence, get on with it, you
don't have all day.
The scream struck me first as a disturbance. An intrusion on
the sweet sound of whatever Brahms sonata was floating to
me from your bedroom. Then, before I knew why, it caused
a kind of pain, a twist in my stomach, as if my body was
understanding before my mind.
Simultaneous with the sound of the scream, there were other
noises, coming from the same direction. Voices unified in a
chant, repeating a two-syllable word or name I couldn't quite
catch. I looked towards the noise and saw the first street lamp
stutter into life. Something was hanging from the horizontal
section of the pole. A dark blue shape that didn't immediately
make sense, high above the ground.
There were people standing below – boys – and the hanging
object and the chanting gained clarity in my mind at the same
'Reuben! Reuben! Reuben!'
I froze. Maybe too much of me was still lost in my account
books as, for a second or so, I did nothing except watch.
My son was hanging from a lamp post, using the greatest
of strength to risk his life for the sake of entertaining those
he thought were friends.
I felt things sharpen and began to move, gaining momentum
as I ran across the landing.
Your music stopped.
'Dad?' you asked me.
I rushed downstairs and through the shop. My hip knocked
into something, a chest, causing one of the figurines to drop
I crossed the street and ran through the gate. I crossed the
park at the pace of a younger self, flying over the leaves and
grass and through the deserted play area. All the time I kept
him in sight, as if to lose him for a second would cause his
grip to weaken. I ran feeling the terror beat in my chest, behind
my eyes and in my ears.
He shuffled his hands closer towards the vertical section of
I could see his face now, glowing an unnatural yellow from
the lamp. His teeth bared with the strain, his bulging eyes
already knowing the insanity of his mistake.
Please, Bryony, understand this: the pain of a child is the
pain of a parent. As I ran to your brother I knew I was running
I stepped on the park wall and jumped down to the pavement,
landing badly. I twisted my ankle on the concrete but
I fought against it as I ran towards him, as I called his name.
Your brother couldn't move. His face was twisted in agony.
The glare of the light blanched his skin, releasing him of the
birth mark he always hated.
I was getting closer now.
'Reuben!' I shouted. 'Reuben!'
He saw me as I pushed my way through his friends. I can
still see his face and all the confusion and terror and helplessness
it contained. In that moment of recognition, of
distraction, the concentration he needed to stay exactly where
he was suddenly faltered. I could feel it before it happened,
a kind of gloating doom leaking out from the terraced houses.
An invisible but all-encompassing evil that stole every last
He fell, fast and heavy.
Within a second his screaming had stopped and he was on
the concrete pavement in front of me.
Everything about him seemed so hideous and unnatural as
he lay there, like an abandoned puppet. The crooked angles
of his legs. The accelerated rhythm of his chest. The shining
blood that spilt from his mouth.
'Get an ambulance,' I shouted at the crowd of boys who
stood there in numb silence. 'Now!'
In the distance cars sped by on Blossom Street, heading into
York or out to the supermarket, immune and unaware.
I crouched down and my hand touched his face and I
pleaded with him to stay with me.
I begged him.
And it seemed like some kind of deliberate punishment,
the way he died. I could see the decision in his eyes, as the
substance of life retreated further and further from his body.
One of the boys, the smallest, vomited on the pavement.
Another – shaven-headed, sharp-eyed – staggered back, away,
onto the empty road.
The tallest and most muscular of the group just stood
there, looking at me, a shaded face inside a hood. I hated
that boy and the brutal indifference of his face. I cursed the
god who had made this boy stand there, breathing before
me, while Reuben was dying on the pavement. Inside the
desperate urgency of that moment I sensed there was something
not quite right about that boy, as though he had been
pasted onto the scene from another reality.
I picked up one of Reuben's heavy hands, his left, and saw
his palm was still red and indented from holding onto the
post. I rubbed it and I kept talking to him, words on top
of words, but all the time I could see him retreating from
his body, backing away. And then he said something.
'Don't go.' As if it was me who was leaving and not him.
They were his last words.
The hand went cold, the night gathered closer and the ambulance
came to confirm it was too late for anything to be done.
I remember I saw you across the park.
I remember leaving Reuben's body on the pavement.
I remember you asked me, 'Dad, what's happening?'
I remember saying, 'Go back, Petal, go back home. Please.'
I remember you asked about the ambulance.
I remember I ignored the question and repeated my demand.
I remember the boy in the hood, staring straight at you.
I remember I became insistent, I remember grabbing your
arm and shouting, I remember being harsher with you than
I had ever been.
I remember the look on your face and I remember you
running back home, to the shop entrance, and the door closing.
And the knowledge below the madness that I had betrayed
As you know, for much of my life I have spent my time mending
broken things. Repairing clock dials, restoring old chairs,
retouching china. Over the years I have become accomplished
at removing stains with ammonia, or a dab of white spirit. I
can remove scratches from glass. I can simulate different grains
of wood. And I can restore a corroded Tudor candlestick with
vinegar, half a pint of hot water and a piece of fine wire wool.
To buy a George III mahogany dressing table suffering the
scars and strains of two centuries, and then return it to its
original glory, once gave me such a thrill. Or equally, to have
Mrs Weeks come into the shop and run her informed fingers
over a Worcester vase without detecting the cracks, not so long
ago filled my soul with happiness.
It gave me a kind of power, I suppose. A means of defeating
time. A way of insulating myself against this foul, mouldering
age. And I cannot explain to you the desperate pain it gives
me to know that I cannot restore our own private past in quite
the same way.
Here is something you must understand.
There have been four people in this life I have truly loved,
and out of those four, you are the only one remaining. All of
the others died of unnatural causes. Son, wife, mother. All
three before their time.
You love three people and they die. It hardly warrants a
public inquiry, does it? No. How many would you have to
love and watch die before people grew suspicious of that love?
Five? Ten? A hundred? Three is nothing. A fig. Three is just
plain old bad luck, even if it is three-quarters of all you have
ever cared for in the world.
Oh, I have tried to be rational. Come on, Terence, I tell
myself. None of these deaths were your responsibility. And, of
course, my defence would hold up in a court of law.
But where are the courts of love? And what possible punishment
could they enforce that was worse than grief? I came to
believe, after Reuben died, that there was something wrong
with me, and with the love I had to offer. I had failed Reuben.
I let him die among friends I had never met.
I had loved him, but I always imagined there would be
some later day when I could make everything up to him. I
couldn't accept that these later days would never come.
Of course, the death of a child is, for any parent, always
an impossible fact. You hear the opening bars of a familiar
sonata and the music stops but you still feel those silent notes,
their beauty and power no less real, no less complete. With
Reuben I had been ignoring the tune. It had been there, all
the time, played continuously for his fourteen years, but I had
switched off, stopped listening. I was always concentrating on
the shop, or on you, and left Reuben to his own devices.
So what I once ignored I strained to find, and if I strained
hard enough I caught flashes, brief bursts of the life that was
transformed but did not truly end. Notes returning not in
pretty sequence, but as a cacophony, crashing over me with
the weight of guilt.
The morning of the funeral I awoke to the sound of buzzing.
A rather angry, sawing noise that cut its way through the
darkness. I opened my eyes and raised my head from the
pillow to see where it was coming from. The room, softly lit
by the morning sun that filtered through the curtains, was
all there. The framed photograph of your mother, the wardrobe,
the Turner print, the French mantel clock. Everything, apart
from the noise, was normal. It was only when I sat up further,
propped on my elbows, that I identified the source. Low above
the bed, over the section of blankets that covered my legs and
feet, I saw what must have been five hundred small flies,
hovering, just hovering, as if I was a sun-rotten corpse in the
For a moment, there was no fear. The sight of these creatures,
moving in short oval swirls, at first had a mesmeric
effect. Then something changed. As if suddenly aware that
I had woken, the flies began to move in one cloudlike motion
further up the bed, towards my face. Soon they were all
around me, a dark blizzard, with their angry, unstoppable
noise getting louder every second. I dived down, deep under
the blankets, hoping the flies wouldn't follow and with that
sudden movement the noise stopped completely. I waited a
second in the warm and cushioned dark, then resurfaced.
The flies had all disappeared, leaving no trace. I looked
around again and, although the creatures had gone, I couldn't
help but feel that the room was different, as if every object
had shared my delusion.
I remember Cynthia and me talking in the car, patching our
grief with small nothings, as the funeral procession rolled
through the old Saxon streets. At one point she turned to you
and said: 'You are doing so well.' You returned your grandmother's
sad smile and I muttered an agreement. You were
certainly remarkably composed, as you had been for much of
the week. Too composed, I had thought, worried you were
keeping it all locked in.
I tried to keep my thoughts on your brother but found
them gravitating towards you, and to the effect your twin
brother's death was having on your behaviour.
You hadn't played your cello all week. This, I told myself,
was understandable. You had gone to the stables every
evening, to take care of Turpin, but you hadn't ridden him
since the day before Reuben died. This too was as might be
expected. You had lost your twin brother and you were
stranded now, an only child of an only parent. Still, something
troubled me. You had been off school, and I had closed
the shop, yet I don't think we had talked properly for the
whole week. You had always found an excuse to leave the
room (to check the iron, to feed Higgins, to go to the toilet).
Even then, in that slow-moving car, you felt my eyes upon
you and you seemed to wince, as though there was a heat
to my gaze, scorching your cheek.
Cynthia's hand squeezed mine as we approached the church.
I noticed her nails, decorated with their usual black varnish,
her face painted in her macabre style, and remembered her
tear-stained joke that morning about how the one useful thing
with regard to her sense of fashion was that she never had to
think what to wear for a funeral.
We pulled up at the church. We left the car with faces
filled with the grief we felt, but also knew we had to show.
As we walked past those cramped old graves of plague victims
I thought of all the dead parents, separated from their children.
Do you remember Cynthia's old ghost story? About
the plague boy who had been buried outside York's walls, in
line with the new laws, and the spirit of his mother rising
up from the graveyard to search in vain for her son? She told
you both it when you were younger, walking back with your
oranges and candles from Christingle, and Reuben laughed
at you for being scared.
It is strange. I feel myself sinking. You remember one thing
and there is always something else, lurking below, pulling
you under. But I must keep my head up. I must stay gulping
the fresh air.
You may wonder why I need to relive these things, when
you were there too, but I must tell you everything as I saw
it, for you know only your side, and I know only mine, and
hopefully when you read this account you will look behind
what I have done and a kind of truth will emerge somewhere
in that space, that airy space, between your reading
and my writing. It is a vain hope, but the last I have, so I
will cling to it, as I clung to you as we walked up the path.
Peter, the vicar, was at the other end of that path to meet
us, ready to give sympathy and the necessary instructions. He
said something to you, and Cynthia butted in on your behalf,
defending you against any obligation to speak. It was then
that I turned round and saw the boy who had been there the
night Reuben died. The boy whom I had hated instantly, for
the blank indifference I had seen in his face. His hood was
gone. He stood in a cheap suit, wearing a black tie, yet I must
admit he had a striking appearance. The pale skin and black
hair and those eyes that seemed to contain a dark and brooding
power. Something violent, and dangerous.
I don't know if you had seen him. Had you? I spoke a
word in Cynthia's ear and walked past those antique graves
'May I ask what you are doing here?'
He didn't say anything at first. He was wrestling with the
sudden fury that was marked on his face.
'Ah'm Denny,' he said, as if it should have signified something.
'Ah were one of Reuben's mates.' There was a rough arrogance
to the voice, something confrontational that seemed
wholly inappropriate to the occasion.
'He never mentioned you.'
'Ah were there when he . . . You saw us.'
'Yes, I saw you.' I bit back insults and accusations. It was
not the time nor the place. 'Now, why are you here?'
'No. You weren't invited.'
'Ah wanted to come.' His eyes pressed harder than his words.
'Well, you came. And now you can go.'
He looked past me, over my shoulder. I turned and saw
you still struggling with the vicar.
'Go,' I said. 'You're not welcome here. Leave us alone.'
He nodded. A suspicion confirmed.
'Right,' he said, through a tensed mouth. As he turned and
walked away I had the most strange and unpleasant sensation.
It was a feeling I can only describe to you as a desertion, some
essential part of my soul being pulled away, leaving me for a
moment uncertain of where I was. My vision darkened, my
brain fuzzed with a strange energy, and I grasped the stone
gatepost for support.
My memory jumps at this point to inside the church. I
remember the slow trudge behind the coffin. I remember the
vicar's vague niceties. I can see Cynthia, up at the lectern,
delivering the bit she had chosen from Corinthians with none
of her normal theatrics. 'For since death came through a human
being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a
human being . . .'
Even more sharply, I remember myself looking out as I
struggled to start the poem I had chosen. I saw so many faces,
all wearing the compulsory expressions of grief. Teachers,
customers, undertakers. And you among them, on the nearest
pew, staring over at your brother's coffin. I looked down at
the sheet in front of me, the sheet Cynthia had printed out
so neatly from her machine.
For a while I couldn't speak, I couldn't cry, I couldn't do
anything. I just stood there.
I made those poor people live lifetimes inside that minute.
I could hardly breathe. Peter was already heading towards me,
raising his eyebrows, when I finally pushed myself into it.
'To sleep,' I said, the words echoing off the cold stone walls.
I kept saying it – 'To sleep' – turning the key to an engine
in my mind. 'John Keats.'
O soft embalmer of the still midnight!
Shutting, with careful fingers and benign
Our gloom-pleas'd eyes, embower'd from the light,
Enshaded in forgetfulness divine;
O soothest Sleep! if so it please thee, close,
In midst of this thine hymn, my willing eyes,
Or wait the 'Amen', ere thy poppy throws
Around my bed its lulling charities;
Then save me, or the passed day will shine
Upon my pillow, breeding many woes;
Save me from curious conscience, that still lords
Its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole;
Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards,
And seal the hushed casket of my soul.
I sat back down. Peter concluded the service. I watched the
feet of the pall-bearers as they turned down the aisle. The left
shoes crossing the right. Four pairs of feet moving in perfect
time, like the beginning of a macabre dance routine.
My eyes slid up and reached one of the faces, trying to hide
the strain it took to shoulder the coffin's weight, struck by a
grief it didn't feel.
I looked at you and told you, 'It's all right.'
You said nothing.
Outside, five minutes later, and soft rain pattered on the
large black umbrella that I held to shelter you and your grandmother.
After a week of silence, your tears came, bringing
Cynthia's with them. Only my eyes remained dry, even though
my heart must have wept. I'm sure it must have.
I still hear Peter's voice.
'We have entrusted our brother Reuben to God's mercy,
and we now commit his body to the ground.' The pall-bearers
lowered the coffin, releasing the black straps in steady motion.
'Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.' The comfort of
repetition, of ritual, did nothing to calm your sobs. 'In sure
and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life through
our Lord Jesus Christ.' The coffin reached hard ground, settled,
and was still. 'Who died, was buried, and rose again for us.
To him be glory for ever and ever.' And then at last there was
the collective 'Amen', spoken so low it seemed to come from
the earth that would bury him. The earth that made us believe
he was gone.
The police were going to do nothing to his friends.
'He wasn't forced up there.'
Such a primitive notion of force, and accident, and responsibility.
I never told you this but I went to see them. The boys.
They hung around the disused tennis courts, so, after I had
dropped you at the stables, I went to voice my feelings.
They were there. All except him, Denny.
I pulled up to the kerb and wound down my window.
'I hope you're happy,' I said, leaning out. 'I hope you had
fun, watching him die. I hope you sleep the innocent sleep,
knowing you are soaked in his blood.'
They stood there, behind the crossed wire, like thugs in a
Bernstein musical. The shaven-haired boy with the sharp eyes
made a rude gesture, but said nothing.
'Murderers,' I yelled, before screeching off.
And I didn't leave it there. The next evening I yelled the
same accusation. And the next, and the next, but I never saw
him. I never saw Denny there. Indeed, by the fourth time, I
couldn't see any of them. I was yelling into nothing, accusing
the air. Guilt had made them evaporate, I told myself. My
words had moved them on. The strange thing is I felt no satisfaction
at this. My heart fell when I realised they weren't there,
and my anger sank swiftly back to despair.