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Life on Other Planets

My debut novel Life on Other Planets will be published in spring 2021 by Lendal Press. Set in 1997, it is about the Carter family’s attempts to sort out the house and estate of their elderly great aunt Pearl, a hoarder and spiritualist. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t go well.

The opening chapter was a runner up at the 2016 Writing on the Wall Pulp Idol competition and published in their collection the following year.

Imagine for a moment that you are rushing through space at a million miles an hour. That stars whip by you like streetlights on the motorway. So dense they appear to you like a gas, unconstrained and beautiful beyond all words. Imagine that the dots blur, an adjustment is made, and all of a sudden, they really are streetlamps, it really is a motorway. Your brain is idling but you know certain things to be so. There is a car. It is late. A boy is half-asleep, sliding in and out of dreams. His father is awake and driving, steering carefully, apprehensively. They have been folded up inside it for hours, four at least. They are freezing and hungry. The conversation dried up and crusted over miles back.

The car slows, eases through ever smaller and darker roads before finally snaking its way down a long mobius strip of a driveway, pulling up outside an old house. Across a field you can see the lights of the nearest neighbour. Probably only fifteen minutes’ walk from the look of it, maybe twenty, but right now it feels like light years.

The man and the boy unfold their legs like grasshoppers shuffle towards the front door. They carry supplies.

Imagine that there they stand, each waiting for the other to reach out. There are no lights on, and this is wrong. Imagine that the moment lasts for a long while and that this wait disturbs something inside the boy, trips a wire, brings every sense imploding in upon some central point, rushing, binding into consciousness, awake at last. And now imagine that this consciousness is not somebody else but you, you are the boy and the dream is over and you are cold, and you are here at a dead woman’s house, your skin prickling and dancing with something like a life of its own. You turn to your father.

‘Well? Open it,’ you say, feeling hardly any guilt for behaving like such a brat. Your bones feel frail. It is freezing.

The man who is your father, but who in this light could be anybody, nods and reaches into his pocket for the key, pushes at the door. It sticks. Something is massed behind it, heavy and crunchy like snow. You squeeze your fingers through the gap. They are letters. Hundreds of envelopes of all shapes and sizes, strange, ornate markings just visible. You poke then kick at them until the door begins to move.

In you go. The house is full of a dense sickly gloom, just enough moonlight to pick your way through. You grope behind the door for the hockey stick you hope is still there, in the umbrella stand. Is it? Yes, it is. You lift it up.

‘Hello?’ your father shouts, but there is no reply.

‘Where is everybody?’

‘I don’t know. There’s nobody here.’ He looks at the hockey stick in your hand. ‘There’s nothing here,’ says your father. ‘Settle down.’ You realise in the darkness that this old face staring back at you is very possibly what you will look like 30 years from now. You realise also that this is the kind of house you might live in. You shudder.

You follow your father inside, knowing he is enjoying the experience even less than you, and that all his bland courage, including the shapeless tune he is humming, is for show. He feels like you, that he is tiptoeing along a brink. The moonlight shows you outlines of things in the corridor, the simple silly belongings of a recluse. What you can just about see appears heaped up. As your nose warms up, odours compete: old booze, corroding metal and mouldy fabrics. Soap. Plastics. You adjust your grip on the hockey stick, a twist and a heft.

The man who is your father is wrong. There is definitely something here. It may not be alive or necessarily visible, but you can feel it absorbing, hear it adjusting itself behind the unseeable curtain. It has been raining and somewhere there is a drip.

A cupboard door hangs open. You peer in. It is a cupboard of jams. At least, you hope they are jams. Spiders retreat from you, pretending not to be there, or perhaps they simply aren’t. Your eyes are definitely not behaving normally. One is fluttering uncontrollably. The smell of old flowers now intrudes. Mice. A rottenness in the air.

‘Smells rotten,’ you say loudly to the man who you hope is your father but who is far away inside the kitchen, and whose reply is too faint to make out. You see something in her handwriting on the side, on one of the heaps. God, this place is rank. Key to small red door. The key is sellotaped to some newspaper. Your footsteps are making a nauseating wet crinkling noise and you cannot quite tell whether it’s the carpet or your shoes or a combination of the two. You take a few steps and can see the wall of pictures now. This place is horrifying, truly terrifying. How did anyone live here?

It is now that the hairy face comes at you from the darkness, white whiskers splayed, teeth bared, and you scream but wow, here comes the hockey stick. It lands well several times before you see that it is just a stuffed badger, now eyeless and jawless, a window of clean white bone apparent underneath, a light dusting of him all over your shoes.

Your father is holding your arm. This is ridiculous, you both agree, though what exactly, which aspect, is hard to say. This is not a house; it is a dead person’s fever dream brought to life then allowed to go cold. You press the heel of your hand into your temple and hold it there. Something is throbbing inside you. Your eyes are still not to be trusted.

Someone turns on the light.

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