Number 11: Or Tales That Witness Madness

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9780670923793: Number 11: Or Tales That Witness Madness

Beginning in the early years of this century, Number 11 follows two friends, Alison and Rachel, as they come of age. As the narrative progresses from the aftermath of the Iraq War to the present day, its scope broadens to include others who are variously connected to these two girls: Alison’s mother, a has-been singer, competes on a grisly reality TV show; Rachel’s university mentor finally confronts her late husband’s obsessive search for a German film he saw as a child; a young police constable investigates the seemingly unrelated deaths of two stand-up comedians; and a giant spider lurks in the darkness beneath one of London’s most staggeringly expensive neighborhoods. Combining his signature humor, psychological insight and social commentary, Jonathan Coe holds up a disquieting, unforgiving mirror in which to reflect a world where the systems are broken and everyone can—and perhaps must—name his or her own price.

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About the Author:

Jonathan Coe’s awards include the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, the Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger, the Prix Médicis Étranger, and the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Writing. He lives in London with his wife and their two daughters. www.jonathancoewriter.com

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Coe / NUMBER 11

1

The round tower soared up, black and glistening, against the slate grey of a late-October sky. As Rachel and her brother walked towards it across the moor, from the east, it was framed by two leafless, skel­etal ash trees. It was the hour before dusk on a windless afternoon. When they reached the trees, they would be able to rest on the bench that stood between them, and look back towards Beverley in the near distance, the neat clusters of houses and, rising up in the midst of them, the monumental, answering greyish-cream towers of the Minster.

Nicholas flopped down on the bench. Rachel—then only six years old, eight years his junior—did not join him: she was impatient to run up towards the black tower, to get close to it. She left her brother to his rest and scurried onwards, squelching her way through the cow-trodden mud that surrounded the foot of the tower until she was right up against it, and could lay her hands upon the gleam­ing black brickwork. The flat of both hands upon the tower, she looked upwards and could not comprehend the size and scale of it, the perfect, lucid curve as it arched itself, like a sway back, against a threatening sky through which a pair of rooks were now skimming, cawing and circling endlessly.

“What did it use to be?” she asked.

Nicholas had joined her now. He shrugged.

“Dunno. Some kind of windmill, maybe.”

“Do you think we could get inside?”

“It’s all bricked up.”

There was a circular wooden bench running all around the base of the tower, and when Nicholas sat there, Rachel sat beside him and stared up into his pale, unresponsive blue eyes, which for all their coldness only made her feel how lucky she was, how blessed, to have an older brother like this, so handsome and confident. She hoped that one day her hair would be as blonde as his, her mouth as shapely, her skin as downy and clear. She nestled against his shoul-der, as close as she dared. She didn’t want to be a drag upon him, didn’t want him to become too aware that, in this strange and un -familiar town, he was the only thing that made her feel safe.

“You cold or something?” he asked, looking down at her.

“A bit.” She inched away slightly. “Will it be warm where they are, d’you think?”

“ ’Course it will. There’d be no point going on holiday somewhere where it’s cold, would there?”

“I wish they’d taken us with them,” said Rachel feelingly. “Well, they didn’t. So that’s that.”

They sat for a few moments in silence: each of them, once again, trying to wrestle as best they could with the conundrum of why their parents should have chosen to go away for half- term without them. Then, as soon as the cold started to bite, Nicholas jumped to his feet.

“Come on,” he said. “Are we going to look at this cathedral before it gets dark?”

“It’s a minster, not a cathedral,” said Rachel.

“Same difference. It’ll just be a big old church, whatever you call it.”

He set off quickly, with Rachel running up behind him in an effort to keep pace, but before they had got very far along the path back to the main road, they were halted in their tracks by the sight of two people approaching them in the distance. One of them was in a wheelchair: it appeared to be an old, old woman, swaddled against the afternoon chill by layer upon layer of thick woollen blankets. Her features were scarcely visible: her head was bowed, drooping tiredly, and she was wearing a silk headscarf which screened most of her face from view. In fact, the longer the children looked at her, the more likely it appeared that she was fast asleep. Her chair was being trundled roughly along the path, meanwhile, by a young- looking man wearing motorcycle leathers and balancing something on his left forearm as he pushed. The something could not, at first, be identified: but as the figures came closer, it looked as though it might—however implausible this seemed—be some sort of bird; a suspicion which was then suddenly and dramatically confirmed when the creature spread its wings to an amazing width, and flapped them languidly, in black silhouette against the grey sky—looking, at that moment, more like some fantastical hybrid creature from mythology than any real bird Rachel could remember having seen before.

Nicholas did not move, and as Rachel stood beside him she clasped his hand, relishing his weak responsive grip, sensing the coldness of his bare hand even through the prickly thickness of her woollen mittens. Unsure what to do next, they watched as the man in leathers settled the wheelchair in place and then spoke a few words to the bird, which reacted by hopping obediently from his arm to one of the chair’s handles. With both arms free now, the man busied himself making sure the old lady in his charge was warm and comfortable, adjusting her blankets and tucking them in around her ever more snugly. Then he turned his attention to the bird.

Rachel inched forward, trying to pull her brother with her.

“What are you doing?”

“I thought you wanted to get on.”

“I do. But I’m not sure that it’s safe.”

The man had taken out a length of twine with something attached to the far end, and had begun to swing it around his head in long, slow, circling movements. There was no traffic on the main road at the moment, and the afternoon was so still that the two children could clearly hear the regular heavy SWUSH of the twine as it swept through the air. They could even hear the beating of the kestrel’s wings (it was clear that it was a kestrel now) as she took off in pursuit of the lure, training herself on the lump of meat at the end of the twine with lethal accuracy, and yet always just missing it, as the man swung it out of her reach in glorious, repeated feats of strength and timing. Every time the bird missed the meat she would dip, swoop lower and then climb steeply again, pushing swiftly up into the sky until she reached the limit of her parabola, hung suspended there for the briefest of moments, whirled and then dived again, rushing down towards the coveted lump of meat with preternatural speed and precision, only to have it snatched from her questing beak at the last possible instant.

After this exhilarating ritual had been performed two or three times, Nicholas and Rachel began to move forward cautiously. The man was standing slap in the centre of the path as he swung the lure about his head, so that they found it necessary to deviate from the track a little—at least far enough to stay out of the way of the circling twine. But this was not good enough for the falconer, who, without taking his eyes off the bird for a second, shouted at them in a voice filled with fury:

“Keep out of the way, can’t you? Keep out the bloody way!”

But it wasn’t the note of anger that surprised the children. It was the pitch of the voice: high, shrill and unmistakably feminine. And now that they were only a few yards from the taut, concentrated figure in motorcycle leathers, their mistake was obvious. It was a woman: a woman of around thirty-five, perhaps, although neither of them was very good at guessing the age of grown-ups. Her face was pale, her cheeks pinched and sunken, her hair shaved down to a severe and uncompromising crew cut. Her ears and nose were pierced and decorated with multiple silver rings and studs. A livid, dark blue-green tattoo of some indeterminate shape seemed to cover most of her neck and throat. She was the most terrifying woman, without a doubt, that Rachel had ever seen. Even Nicholas seemed taken aback. And if her appearance was not startling enough, there was the rising note of rage in her voice at the temerity, the insolence of these children for encroaching upon what she must have felt to be her own and the bird’s territory. “Go on! Piss off!” she shouted. “Keep out the way! Use some bloody sense!”

Nicholas tightened his grip on his sister’s hand and turned a sharp left, so that they were heading directly away from the danger zone. They sped up until they had practically broken into a run. Only when they were at twenty yards’ safe distance from the scene did they stop and turn to take one last look. It was a tableau, a moment in time, that would remain forever stamped on Rachel’s memory: the Mad Bird Woman (as she would always be called from now on) twirling the lure around her head with ferocious energy and concentration; the unimaginable swiftness and sureness of the bird as she plunged towards her prey and then soared upwards again, thwarted but dauntless; in the background, the black tower, tall, implacable and lowering; and in the foreground, the old lady in her wheelchair, fully alert now, her eyes bright and shining as they followed the movements of the bird, her vividly rouged lips parted in a rapturous smile as she called out to the plunging kestrel: “Come on, Tabitha! Come and get it! Dive for the meat! Dive, Tabitha, dive!”

Rachel did not like the look of the Minster at all. As they approached the main entrance from Minster Yard North, it was almost a quarter past four and dusk was already beginning to settle on the town. The thin shreds of mist which had been creeping along the streets and between the houses all day were turning bluish in the fading light, coiling and twining around the streetlamps with their blurry yellow coronas. And now a darker, more muted, blue-black light was starting to descend and spread itself, so that the walls of the Minster, as Rachel dragged her reluctant feet towards them, became hard to make out: no more than a whisper, an intimation, of the church’s looming and ominous bulk. The cold which had first begun to grip her out on Westwood pasture, as she sat at the foot of the black tower, had now entered her bones, and taken such a pitiless hold that it felt as if these very bones were themselves made of ice. However tightly she pulled her duffel coat around her shivering body, however deep she plunged her hands into those sweet-wrapper-filled pockets, nothing could protect her from that cold. Soon the mixture of cold and apprehension had slowed her footsteps to a halt, only a few yards from the Minster doorway.

Now what’s the matter?” said Nicholas, crossly.

“Do we have to go inside?”

“Why not? We’ve come all this way.”

Still Rachel held back. Inexplicably, her unease at the prospect of stepping through the Minster doorway was intensifying, mutating into something like dread. Nicholas took her by the hand again but there was nothing comforting about the gesture this time; he was pulling her towards the door.

In a moment they had passed through, into the darkness. Or at least, they were through the doorway, and into a small vestibule, but before they could get any further a startling thing happened. They had assumed they were alone in this narrow space but suddenly, quite silently and without warning, a figure stepped out from somewhere: from one of the pools of shadow, presumably, in its furthest corners. He appeared before them so unexpectedly, his footsteps so absolutely noiseless on the flagstones, that Rachel could not help but let out a scream.

“Sorry,” he said, to the little girl. “Did I frighten you?”

He was a small man of somewhat striking appearance: his hair was albino white, his complexion so fair that his skin was almost transparent, and he had no eyebrows that Rachel could see. He wore a shabby fawn mackintosh over a light-grey suit, with a very wide brown tie of the sort that might have been fashionable about twenty-five years ago, back in the 1970s.

“Can I help you?” he asked. His tone was friendly but somehow intimidating. He spoke with a slight lisp which made Rachel think he sounded like a snake.

“We just wanted to go inside and have a look round,” said Nicholas.

“Minster’s closed now,” said the man. “It closes at four o’clock.”

The warmth of relief flooded through Rachel’s body. They would not have to go inside. They could turn, and go home; back to the relative sanctuary of her grandparents’ house anyway. She would be spared the nightmare.

“Oh. OK then,” said Nicholas, disappointed.

The man hesitated a moment or two.

“Go on, then,” he said, with a smile and a sinister wink. “You can have a wander around for a few minutes. They won’t be shutting up just yet.”

“Are you sure? That’s ever so kind of you.”

“No problem, son. If anyone asks, just say Teddy told you it’d be all right.”

“Teddy?”

“Teddy Henderson. The assistant warden. Everybody knows me here.” He watched as the children continued to hesitate. “Go on, then. What you waiting for?”

“All right. Thanks!”

Nicholas was off through the main door in no time, leaving Rachel with two options: to follow him, or to remain in the vestibule with the smiling figure of Mr. Henderson. It was no choice at all, in fact. Without glancing once at the discomfiting stranger, she took a deep breath and followed her brother.

It had seemed quiet outside the Minster, and inside the vestibule; but once Rachel had stepped inside the church’s actual, vast interior, she found herself enveloped by quiet of an entirely different order. The silence was overpowering. She paused for a while, listening to it, absorbing it, holding her breath. Then she took a few steps forward towards the central aisle, and even those gentle, tentative footsteps sounded intrusive in that vaulted and silent space. She looked around for Nicholas but couldn’t see him. The cold and the dark pressed down upon her. Dim electric bulbs threw feeble light over some of the walls, and there were a few candles flickering in the candelabra up towards the pulpit. But nothing could really palliate the sense of overwhelming gloom and unearthly silence. Where had Nicholas gone? Rachel walked quickly up the aisle now, looking anxiously to her left and right. He couldn’t have gone far: she would see him in a second or two, surely. She had walked almost as far as the choir stalls when a sound suddenly made her freeze: a crashing sound, long and reverberant and horribly loud. The sound of a door being closed. She wheeled around. Was that the main door? Was that Mr. Henderson, locking up and going home? This was one of her keenest, most primal fears—the fear of getting locked in somewhere, after dark, and having to spend the night in a strange and lonely place. Was that what was happening now? She wanted to run towards the door to see, but stayed rooted to the spot. Indecision paralysed her. Tears sprang to her eyes and her body began to contract, turning in upon itself, seizing up with terror.

She sensed a movement behind her; she heard voices, murmuring. Turning round sharply, she thought she could make out two figures, talking in the shadows beyond the choir stalls. She took a breath and, in an act of desperate courage, called out: “Who’s that?”

After a couple of seconds the voices stopped and one of the figures stepped forward. It was Nicholas. It was all Rachel could do to stop herself from letting out a yelp of happiness. She ran towards him and threw her arms around him. He embraced her, too, but there was something cold, preoccupied about the gesture. He did not look down at her, barely seemed to notice that she was cli...

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