Monday, 4 July 2011

The City - by EJ Barnes

Almost half my life ago, I started writing a book. I only had scraps of time to write it, and I did so on a flimsy desk squeezed into a corner of my small bedroom in London. Over the next few years I continued writing it, wherever I happened to be. In London there were sometimes cats fighting in the adjacent car park. In Cambridge, I camped out illicitly in the grandeur of a college residence, looking straight onto a Tudor gateway and a statue of Henry VIII. In the American West there were squirrels playing on the cables that criss-crossed the front of my apartment. Back in Britain, I found myself briefly in a bed-sit over a Thai restaurant.

My book – my epic, as my family came to call it - had begun with three persistent ideas and images. A girl abandoned on a lonely island with an old man, whose own history was mysterious to her. A Walled City under threat. And some fleeting, tenuous ideas about the nature of freedom, and whether it can ever be reconciled with communal safety.

I finished my book – books, it turned out – in an attic in Yorkshire. Two weeks later I nearly died – but that is another story. It did bring home the point that my epic was most of my life’s work, so far, and perhaps that is why I have struggled so hard since. I found I did not want to hawk it round publishers. I did not want to chop it up and restructure it into something completely different, but more in keeping with current publishing desires and dictates. I tried – but I could not do it.

Then I realised that there was an alternative. Soon I will release The City as an e-book. Here is how it begins.


They had been travelling in the thickest fog, but now, suddenly, it lifted. The moon was the palest disc in a sombre sky, casting its bars of light upon the sea. But it could not calm the waves, where they beat against the shore, their white spray swallowed by the shadow of the rocks. Nor could it light the looming walls and towers that rose, darker than night, out of the rock and into the winter sky.

Between the ramparts and the sea, the shore sent out its spiny fingers. Spurs of rock sliced the water as it crashed towards the land. In places, the eternal beating of the sea had created perforations, so that the rock resembled lace, in others it had moulded great elongated arches, whose centres had been worn away, and which would themselves eventually snap and crumble into the deeps. Yet still the vast bulk of the crags loured over the water, unbroken and indomitable.

The tall man seated in the front of the boat hunched his shoulders and shielded his face from the spray. Then he turned towards the other: a small, squat figure, wielding the oars.

"I do not see any way through this mess of rock."

"Still, I will find it."

"We will both be dashed to our deaths."

No reply.

"There can be no landing place."

"Yet I will take you there."

The tall man did not find this satisfactory. He seemed about to speak, then shrugged his shoulders and let it go. He sat, gazing into the night, as the other drove the boat onwards through the water.

At that hour and place, the shoreline did indeed appear a jagged mass of outcrops that no craft could survive. But now he seemed to forget that. His eyes were no longer on the rocks. They had risen to the vast black walls above.

"Not this way," he murmured to himself. "I would not have come this way."

His eyes were searching for something. At last, as their boat passed around yet another promontory, he found it. His eyes fixed on the blackness far above him. There was a notch there, high in the wall, where it met the sky. It was as if a vast chunk of stone had been bitten away: a gap, like a tooth pulled from a face. It was a small paleness in a dark mass that seemed to suck away all light.

A shiver passed through his body.

"I can hear him screaming," he said quietly. "Yes, I hear his screams again. They weep as they climb, but they scream as they fall. It will never leave me."

Silence, but for the waves.

"It has always been that way."

The tall man started, as if he had forgotten the rower's presence, that the boat did not move by itself through the water. Then he nodded, as if in acknowledgement. "Yes. It has always been that way. But I have preferred to forget it. And now I cannot forget." He gripped the side of the boat, so that his knuckles showed white. Then, deliberately, he turned his face towards the sea. Beads of sweat glittered on his forehead. Yet, as he watched the moonlight on the water, his face grew calm again.

With the sound of the waves they passed, weaving their way through the crinkles of the shore. Wisps of cloud passed across the moon. The boat moved more quickly now, moving with the tide, and the wind from the sea. At length, two spikes of rock reared up, like the watch towers on either side of a gate. The boat passed between and into a narrow channel, which grew shallower, until finally the boat grounded, with a dull grate, on the rough shingle of the cove.

A shadow detached itself from the sheltering cliffs and moved towards them.


It was a woman's voice, just audible against the waves.

He climbed from the boat and together they crossed the thin pebble strip into the shelter of the rocks. He studied her face in the moonlight. She was pale but calm, her expression unreadable. Her eyes were grey as the sea itself.

"So you found a way down."

"There are many ways.... more than you or I could imagine. I had a guide."

"Were you followed?"

She shrugged. "I do not know. We crept like rats through dark places. If we were followed, it no longer matters."

"And the decree? It still stands?"

"Oh yes. In all its provisions. How otherwise? For the greatest crime, the greatest penalty." Her voice was filled with bitterness.

In the moments that followed there was no sound but the waves, breaking more angrily now against the shore. Down by the water, the boatman shifted the craft, pulling it round in the sea.

"So. What is it you want of me?" he asked, at last. “Will you leave?”

"No. I have not been sent away. And I find there is nowhere else I want to go."

"Then why -"

“I have something for you. A trust, a gift.”

There was a flurry of cloth, and the small bundle that had been clasped invisible beneath her cloak was exposed to the air. It looked like a flour bag, heavy and shapeless; but suddenly there was a bleat, and a motion, as of something kicking out angrily within.

“It is…a child…” He was utterly bewildered.

“Yes. Take it.” She paused, then added, “I told you. The decree still stands.”

“But what shall I do with it?” he asked. She said nothing, only held it out to him. He took it, and stood holding it awkwardly. She was already turning to go. He stopped her.

"Remember. You have not seen me. You do not know my name."

"Indeed, you are nobody," she replied. "I do not know you. I do not know your name."


Katherine Roberts said...

You nearly died? I've had a couple of those moments myself when I honestly thought "Oh *&*!, this is IT", and you're right they do change the way you view the rest of your life, at least for a short while afterwards.

This is a question for everyone publishing new books on Kindle... has anyone found a good, quick, reasonably priced freelance UK editor who will do the basic editorial work on the manuscript and copyedit? (Are there any freelance editors looking for this sort of work out there...?)

The City sounds just like my sort of book - look forward to seeing it on Kindle, Emma!

Emma Barnes said...

Thanks Katherine - the great joy of kindle is that you have control, but the disadvantage is that the whole process starts to feel over-whelming! So I would be interested in knowing the answer to your question too.

Debbie said...

Katherine, if you look on kindleboards or UK kindle users forum, there are various threads with ads from freelance editors. No idea if any are any good, mind you.