Voices in the Dark, page 1
About the Author
Nightfall, The Twenty Ninth of December
Dawn, The Thirtieth of December
The Thirtieth of December
The Night of The First of January
Evening The Second of January
Midnight, The Third of January
Four O’Clock The Fourth of January
Morning, The Fourth of January
Evening, The Fourth of January
The Night of The Sixth of January
Just Before Dawn on The Seventh of January
Nightfall The Eighth of January
Evening The Tenth of January
Just Before Midnight The Tenth of January
Nightfall, The Last Day of March Arkavitz
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Epub ISBN 9781407049045
VOICES IN THE DARK
A CORGI BOOK 978 0 552 55661 3
First published in the USA by Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House Inc. First published in Great Britain by Corgi Books, [an imprint of Random House Children’s Books A Random House Group Company]
This edition published 2010
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Copyright © Catherine Banner, 2009 Jacket art copyright © Cliff Nielsen, 2009 Cover design and typography by www.blacksheep-uk.com
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Catherine Banner began writing her debut novel, The Eyes of a King, at the age of fourteen, after school and on summer holidays. In 2006 her portrait was displayed in the Exceptional Youth Exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery, which showcased talented and inspiring young Britons. Catherine was also featured in the Observer’s 2008 ‘Cool List’. She is currently in her second year at Cambridge University, studying English. Voices in the Dark is the second novel in the trilogy, and Catherine is now working on the third title.
THE TWENTY NINTH
I want more than anything to tell you the truth about my life. I am a criminal, also a liar. But I swear this will be a true account.
That was how I began as the coach drew away from the city, south and then west into the darkness of the moors. The woman opposite me was pretending to sleep, one arm around the shoulders of her little boy. The old man next to me kept sighing and shaking his head. He was saying the rosary; the quiet clicking of the beads was the only sound. We were all avoiding each other’s glances. The snow and fire behind us made wild patterns on the glass. Every few seconds, the old man glanced back and sighed again, as though he had left a good life behind him. Fires were blazing on the walls of the castle, throwing black smoke over the stars. I imagined that he had some ordered existence in the city, and this ritual was all that he could carry of it with him into the unknown.
I owned nothing but the clothes I wore and the contents of the pockets. I kept checking them to see that everything was still there. I had given the driver fifty crowns and my christening bracelet as payment; by the time we set off, it was nearly midnight, and the queues at the harbour stretched a mile. But I still had a pencil and a stack of papers and a box of matches and a candle and the medallion Aldebaran had given me.
We did not speak to each other. This would be a long journey, long and cold, but we were still strangers and had nothing to say. The old man beside me had his rosary beads, but ever since I was a young boy, I had put my faith in stories; they came more easily to me than prayers. When we set out on this journey, I had thought that perhaps I could write everything down and explain it. And yet the words did not come easily this time. It was nearly impossible to write with the lurching of the coach, and my heart was heavy. I put the paper back into my pocket and tried to sleep.
‘Get down from the coach!’ someone shouted when we had travelled a few miles. It was only the driver, cursing at a broken wheel and glancing about him with his rifle raised. Ahead were the lights of a village. We would have to stop for the night here, the driver told us. If he fixed the wheel now, the horses would be too cold to continue, and besides, this road was dangerous. We would go on to the next inn and stop there. The woman made some protest about this. A cold wind was sweeping over the snow, driving it in gusts against the windows of the carriage. We stepped down, shivering. The little boy clung to his mother’s overcoat. I offered to take one of her cases, but she shook her head. The driver unhitched the horses and led them beside him, and we walked in silence towards the lights.
None of us had money for a bed, so we all ended up in the front room of the inn. This was just a windswept village in the middle of nowhere. The little boy and his mother slept in a corner with their heads on the table. The old man got out his rosary again, then put it away and ordered a bottle of spirits and sat there drinking it and watching the snow fall. I listened to the wind growling and thought about what I would write. Then I got out the paper and pencil and began again. But it was no good. I sighed and crossed out the start of it.
The inn sign creaked and rattled in the wind outside. I could not write; every time I tried, it was wrong. When this had gone on for some time, the old man got up and came towards my table, holding out the bottle of spirits. ‘Here,’ he said. ‘Maybe it will cure your writer’s depression.’
‘It’s kind of you.’
He poured me a glass, then waited to see if I would let him sit down at the table. I drew out a chair. He settled slowly, flexing each finger so that the joints cracked. I could tell from his face that he had once been handsome, and his eyes were quick and kind. I sipped the spirits and waited for him to say something else.
‘Where are you going?’ he asked eventually.
I shrugged. ‘I don’t really know.’
‘Neither do I. I am trying to
‘I’m supposed to be going to Holy Island too,’ I said. ‘But …’
‘But you don’t think you will,’ he said. ‘Now that you have set out.’
‘How did you know?’
‘Ah,’ he said. ‘A lifetime of studying human nature. Now, tell me what you are trying to write.’
I thought about this for a long time. ‘A letter to my brother,’ I said eventually. ‘I’ve done a very bad thing. I don’t know if he’ll forgive me, but I want to explain. And I want to tell him …’I hesitated.
‘Go on,’ said the old man kindly.
‘I want to tell him the truth. He’s only a baby now, but I want to record it, for when he grows up. I was never told the truth, you know? And I think if he knows it, he will stand a chance.’
He nodded for me to continue.
‘And I want to tell him about our life in the city,’ I said. ‘Because that’s all gone now. He’ll never know it.’
‘Admirable,’ said the old man.
‘Not really,’ I said. ‘Not if you knew.’
‘So tell me,’ he said. ‘Maybe it will make it easier to write if you tell me first.’
‘Do you think so?’ I said.
He shook his head. ‘I can’t tell. It depends.’
‘It is a long story,’ I said. ‘It would take a while to explain.’
‘This will be a long journey,’ said the old man.
I folded the paper and drank the rest of the glass of spirits. It burned in my chest like fire and gave me courage and made me melancholy at the same time. He introduced himself at last as Mr Hardy. I told him my name was Anselm. We sat there talking about nothing at all for a long while, and the wind cried like voices in the dark outside. Then, as the darkness drew on, I started to tell him the story. There was nothing else to do on this bleak night. I told him how it started with our shop and with the graveyard and with the old days on Citadel Street, and there I got confused and fell silent, trying to think where it began. ‘With Aldebaran’s funeral,’ I said eventually.
‘Aldebaran is dead?’ he said, and started as though he had been struck in the chest.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘He died in July. Did you not know?’
He shook his head. Everyone in the country knew it, but this man had somehow missed the fact. He went on shaking his head and said, ‘Aldebaran is dead,’ again, but this time it was not a question. ‘Tell me this story,’ he said. ‘I want to hear.’
The crowds came from a hundred miles to Aldebaran’s funeral. They lined up against the barriers before dawn had yet risen and threw flowers and sang patriotic songs. But a strange hush followed the coffin as it drifted out of the cathedral. We followed it in silence. Leo went first, with his hair cut too short and a cigarette jammed in the corner of his mouth. My mother and Jasmine walked together; my mother kept letting go of Jasmine’s hand to brush away her tears. The back of my neck burned under the eyes of the crowd.
Jasmine was pulling away from my mother, trying to get closer to the coffin, but the guards kept her back. The king was just ahead of us. He had insisted on walking beside his chief adviser to the grave. Everyone had argued against it. An assassination, the government believed, was always the start of something. But the king ignored them and went with his hand on the side of the coffin all the way down the main street.
The coffin bore our small wreath, but apart from that, there was nothing of Aldebaran about it. It was mounted on a gun carriage and draped in flags, and soldiers with their bayonets marched on either side of it. Every few yards, someone in the crowd would pitch a flower over the barrier. The blossoms thumped on the wood of the coffin, and the boots of the guards ground them into the dust.
Jasmine was crying; at six years old, the noise and solemnity had got the better of her.
‘Here, come here,’ said Leo, and tried to pick her up, but she shook her head and shrugged up her coat so that only her eyes showed. Leo reached out helplessly, and his hand found my shoulder instead. Somewhere, a band was playing, and every few seconds, the gun salute in the Royal Gardens shook the foundations of the city. Starlings rose in drifts from the ruined armaments factory. They circled dizzily over us, making endless patterns against the clouds.
Not long after that, a fine drizzle began. ‘Oh, have some mercy!’ said my mother, struggling with her new black umbrella and swiping at the tears on her face. It sounded like a stupid thing to say – as if the clouds would hear her and keep the rain from falling. But everything this morning had sounded stupid. The river hissed and seethed as the rain fell harder; the raindrops thundered on the wood of the coffin. We stood beside the open grave while the priest, a bishop from the south who none of us recognized, drifted over and opened his prayer book. ‘Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life,”’ read the bishop. ‘“He who believes in me will live even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”’
I did not know if Aldebaran had believed in God. He had never spoken about it. The bishop had a thin and cracked voice, and the rain made it feebler. He kept stopping to wipe the rain from his spectacles. It came down like arrows. The regimental uniforms of the foreign heads of state were spattered with mud up to the knees. Jasmine broke free and knelt down on the side of the grave. She watched the coffin descend, not caring that the dirt and rain covered her Sunday clothes.
‘Jasmine, come back,’ murmured my mother.
‘Let her,’ said Leo. ‘It’s all right.’
‘“We brought nothing into the world, and we take nothing out,"’ said the bishop. ‘“The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away: blessed be the name of the Lord.”’
As the coffin descended into the earth, the drums and the cannons fell silent. We each threw a handful of wet mud into the grave, and the foreign dignitaries and government ministers stepped forward and did the same, staining the sleeves of their uniforms. The king was so close on the other side of the grave that I could make out the tears standing in his eyes. He gave Leo a quick nod. They had met each other once, years ago. But the king was already turning now, and the guards ushered him towards the graveyard gate. The band took up their dirge again.
We listened to the procession fading. Then we could hear only the drum, and afterwards not even that. The rain dripped from the spokes of my mother’s umbrella and gusted across the graveyard. Crows flapped, buffeted one way, then the other in the driving wind that howled in the dead branches of the trees. Someone had cut the grass around Aldebaran’s grave, but beyond that, the graveyard had lost all appearance of order years ago.
‘Come on,’ said my mother. ‘Let’s go. There’s no point staying here.’
Leo shook his head. Out of the rain, two figures were appearing: my grandmother, in her neat mourning clothes and with a black scarf over her head, frowning because of the rain, and Father Dunstan, our own priest, after her.
‘Will you say another prayer, Father?’ asked Jasmine, sniffing, as he came up beside us. ‘Uncle didn’t know that old man.’
Father Dunstan stood on the end of the new grave and made the sign of the cross. His prayer book was awash; the pages buckled under the rain’s assault. ‘“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his compassion never fails,”’ Father Dunstan read. ‘“Every morning they are renewed.” ”
‘Amen,’ said Jasmine, sniffing. ‘Say another.’
Father Dunstan went on reading. He read all the funeral prayers in his book. Then the graveyard fell silent, and the rain dwindled, and there was nothing to do but go home.
In several of the houses, Malonian flags were still draped from the windows or clinging wetly to the washing lines. Beggars moved among the listless crowds with their hands outstretched. Two war veterans on the corner of the street called out as we passed,‘Spare a coin, sir! In the Lord’s name have mercy on a poor man!’ Leo gave them each a
‘Everyone liked Uncle,’ I said. ‘See? The whole city has come out to pay their respects to him.’
‘So why haven’t they found the bad man who shot him?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘But I don’t understand—’
‘Shh,’ said my mother, and put a hand on Jasmine’s shoulder to quiet her.
Leo had not heard. He was walking ahead of us with his hands in his overcoat pockets.
Our closest neighbours were standing out on their steps: the pharmacist and her two sons, Mr Pascal the secondhand clothes dealer, and the Barones from next door. Michael caught my glance as we passed. He was my oldest friend, and to see him there was some consolation. We went inside; then my mother shut the door, and the noise of the crowded city vanished. Leo sat down at the table in the back room. My mother put the kettle on the stove. We all stood around and could think of nothing to say.
‘It’s so unfair,’ my mother said eventually.
‘I know,’ said Leo.
‘He would never have wanted to go like that.’
There was another silence. A few raindrops crackled on the window. I added more coals to the stove and tried to turn them over without interrupting the silence that had settled over us.
‘I must say,’ my grandmother ventured,‘I thought it was a lovely ceremony. And he was old, Maria. He was eighty-six. I’m sure I’d be glad to die at such an age.’
‘He was shot,’ said Leo. ‘No one would be glad—’
‘Why haven’t they caught the man—’ began Jasmine.
‘Shh,’ said my mother. ‘I don’t know. They will.’