These are just some of the characters and events which are given life in A. J. Ashworth’s Scott Prize-winning collection Somewhere Else, or Even Here. The stories, described as ‘dark’ and ‘delicious’ by the writer Maggie Gee, explore themes of loss and loneliness, desire and hope – with characters left to navigate the shifting landscapes of their lives.
A. J. Ashworth captures, with honesty, the collisions that can happen between human beings, whether it’s a couple facing up to life after the death of a child, or lovers broken apart by infidelities either real or imagined. She explores those moments of realisation, those turning points, which will continue to resonate throughout the lives of her characters – those people who, even in small ways, will be forever changed, forever cut loose from their earlier selves.
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Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
A stick, scraping over sand. Lainey bending low as she drags it near the water’s edge, tongue poking out of her mouth. The stick stutters and the lines break. She tuts and goes back, fills in the gaps.
She glances up every now and again to check for movement in the distance. But her dad’s asleep on a towel the colour of dull grass; her mum’s still reading the magazine that’s collapsed in her lap like a huge, tired butterfly.
‘What are you writing?’ A boy a couple of years older than Lainey is beside her. Milky coffee skin, in shorts and with sand grains up to his knees.
‘Doesn’t look like nothing,’ he says, and digs a hole with his big toe, skewers it into the damp sand. ‘Is that your name?’
Lainey pushes the stick in deeper to make the lines stand out more. ‘Yeah,’ she says. ‘Lainey.’ The stick makes a ‘shhh’ sound that she wants to keep going for as long as possible.
The boy squats, swipes sand with the side of his hand and fills the toe-hole, smoothing it until it can no longer be seen. ‘Do you not want to know my name?’ He stands again, puts a hand over his eyes to block out the sun. He looks as if he’s saluting her.
Lainey shrugs. ‘Not bothered.’
‘Jeremy,’ he says. ‘I live over there.’
She squints up as the boy points in the direction of a sand dune, tufted with grasses. She shrugs again. ‘Can’t see any houses.’
‘Well, that’s because you can’t see it from here, stupid,’ he says. ‘It’s behind the dunes.’
Lainey tuts. ‘I’m not stupid.’
‘Whatever,’ he says, gouging crescents with his toe now. ‘Anyway, that’s where I live.’
She listens to the ‘shhh’ of the stick mingling with the
sea’s low rumble. ‘So?’ she says. ‘I’m busy.’
There’s a squawk above and two seagulls swing into view, one
swooping in low on another. Lainey stops scraping to watch. The attacking seagull has its beak open like a pair of yellow scissors. The other smaller one dives out of its way.
‘They kill each other sometimes,’ says Jeremy. ‘Gulls.’
‘They don’t,’ she says, brine in the breeze making her eyes water.
Jeremy grabs a handful of sand, balls it in his fist and throws it at the birds. It crumbles and dies into the sea.
‘They do,’ he says. ‘I’ve seen it before.’ He sticks his belly out and
rubs his hand over it. ‘I saw one dying with its eye hanging out.’
Lainey screws her face up. ‘Disgusting.’
‘Another gull got it.’
‘Yuk,’ says Lainey.
A second squawk and the two birds fly over the children’s heads and become lost above the town.
‘It was last week,’ he says. ‘I stamped on its head to kill it.’ He kicks his foot down onto the sand five times to show her. When he stops there’s a hollow with streaks of grey inside. He stares at the hole and doesn’t move or speak for a long time.
Lainey sees the boy’s clenched jaw and how his eyes have become fixed to the spot. She also sees how, near to where he’s looking, there are two halves of a razor shell still joined at their nner corners — a pair of pouting lips on the browned beach face.
‘So you killed it then, not the other bird,’ she says, pushing the stick in again and grinding it down to make the dot of an ‘i’. ‘It wasn’t dead until you stood on it.’
He blinks and is back with her. ‘No,’ he says. ‘I just put it out of its misery, that’s all. It would have died anyway.’
Jeremy is searching for washed-up jellyfish further along the beach as Lainey draws a circle around what she’s written. As she links the two ends together the boy is back, holding lumpy ropes of seaweed.
‘Find any?’ she says.
‘Nah,’ he says. ‘But I got these.’
He swings them towards her until their crisped ends almost touch her nose. ‘Stop it,’ she says, throwing her head back. ‘They’re horrible.’
He swings them above his head then drops his arm. ‘This is boring,’ he says. ‘Do you want to go over to those rocks instead?’ He nods at a far corner of the beach where the sea sweeps around in a crescent. ‘There’s rock pools and a cave. I can show you.’
Lainey turns to her parents; they are two fish pulled from the water and laid out to dry. ‘I have to stay here,’ she says, shrugging one shoulder.
‘They your parents?’ he asks.
‘They’re asleep,’ he says. ‘They won’t even know you’ve been anywhere.’
She rubs her eyes for longer than is needed, but stops as a man walks past shouting to the sea. ‘Bess! Bess!’
Lainey stares too but can’t see anything. ‘Is that a dog’s name?’ she says to Jeremy.
‘Don’t know.’ The boy shrugs. ‘Come on,’ he says, flicking the seaweed at her again.
The man moves off down the beach.
‘Lay-knee,’ says Jeremy, a whine in his voice now. ‘There’s all
sorts to see. Stuff you won’t have seen before. Honest.’
Lainey frowns. ‘Like what?’ she says.
‘All sorts,’ says Jeremy. ‘But if I tell you it’ll ruin it.’ He drapes the seaweed around his neck.
He sets off, marching towards the rocks. ‘Forget it.’
‘You’re telling lies,’ she says.
‘Yeah, yeah,’ he shouts.
Lainey watches the boy’s feet leave dark footprints behind him as if he’s being followed by somebody who’s invisible. ‘What’s to see?’ she says.
Jeremy ignores her and starts to run. Still holding the stick, she arches her arms up over her head until she blocks out the sun. Then she gives a sigh to the sky before running after his shadow.