Hi and welcome to FromBelgiumWithBookLove! It is my absolute honour to share with you an excerpt from one of my favourite books this year. I read this in July (find my review here) and I still have not fully recovered.
In case you missed it, let’s take a look at the blurb:
John Docherty’s mother has just been taken into a nursing home following a massive stroke and she’s unlikely to be able to live independently again.
With no other option than to sell the family home, John sets about packing up everything in the house. In sifting through the detritus of his family’s past he’s forced to revisit, and revise his childhood.
For in a box, in the attic, he finds undeniable truth that he had a brother who disappeared when he himself was only a toddler. A brother no one ever mentioned. A brother he knew absolutely nothing about. A discovery that sets John on a journey from which he may never recover. For sometimes in that space where memory should reside there is nothing but silence, smoke and ash. And in the absence of truth, in the absence of a miracle, we turn to prayer. And to violence.
Shocking, chilling and heartbreakingly emotive, In the Absence of Miracles is domestic noir at its most powerful, and a sensitively wrought portrait of a family whose shameful lies hide the very darkest of secrets.
And without further ado, here is the extract. Hope you enjoy!
Paul watched from his stool at the far end of the bar as his old friend ducked inside the door and then looked around the room for him.
He stood up and gave a wave. ‘John,’ he shouted over the music. ‘Over here.’
John gave a sharp nod, flicked a smile and walked towards him, meeting him at the bar, hand out. They shook, and with his free hand Paul clasped his friend by the shoulder.
‘Been a while since you’ve been in here, eh?’
John’s face bloomed into a smile and Paul thought, there he is, the guy who had been by his side as he negotiated the world of boyhood. His face was puffier, his belly was pushing his shirt out, but the boy peeped out of that smile, and Paul found himself feeling the years since he’d seen his old friend. John’s smile was full of warmth, but its edges were traced in sadness. Paul wondered what John had been through since they last spoke.
‘Years, mate,’ John answered Paul’s question with a nod. ‘Years.’
With that he took the stool beside Paul at the bar, looking around himself as he did so. It would be, Paul guessed, as if time had frozen. More than likely it was the same music – Whitesnake – bouncing from the tiny speakers in the ceiling; the same copper-topped bar at their elbows, and if not exactly the same people, similar figures were dotted around the room as if part of some colourful but ageing frieze. The walls covered in murals depicting scenes from the poems of Robert Burns.
‘Will we grab a table up the back?’ Paul asked after they’d both ordered a drink, trying not to cast a judgemental expression when he heard John order a pint and a double whisky chaser.
A few people gave the men a nod as they walked across the low ceilinged room towards a small table in the far corner, just by the dartboard.
‘Good to see you, man. You’re looking well,’ John said as he sat, stealing a glance at the pale two-inch scar that ran across his cheek below his left eye. Paul gave the skin there a scratch. His scar was ancient history, at least to him, but he could see a flare of guilt when John’s eyes strayed there.
‘How’s your mum?’ Paul asked, recalling what his mother had told him.
‘She’s not looking quite so poorly as the last time I saw her.’ John replied.
‘Getting old’s rubbish, eh?’ Paul commiserated.
‘How are you dealing with it?’
John took a long drink and after he swallowed gave a long, slow sigh as if that was his best moment of the day.
‘Man, I’d forgotten how shitty that road is down from Glasgow.’
‘Tell me about it,’ Paul replied, thinking if his friend didn’t want to talk about his mother that was fine by him.
For the next few minutes they caught up on the machinery of their everyday lives – work and relationships.
Surprised at how easily they slipped back into each other’s company, Paul heard himself tell John that he and his wife were considering fertility treatment, something he’d not even told his mother.
‘I don’t mind kids,’ John said. ‘But more than one in a burger is a bit too chewy.’ ‘
Says the teacher,’ replied Paul with a grin.
‘Spend all day with the wee shits and that would soon cure you of your desire to procreate.’
‘But weren’t you promoted to head of department last year?’ Paul asked crossing his arms with mock outrage.
John laughed. ‘How did you hear about that?’
‘Your mum told my mum soon as it happened,’ Paul answered.
‘You must be doing something right to be moving up the ladder.’
‘To be fair, most of the kids are cool. They speak my language.’
‘Aye, cos you never really grew up.’ John gave a nod of recognition.
‘Maybe that’s why I don’t want any. I’m still just a big wean myself.’
They both took a drink, mirroring each other’s actions and Paul smiled. ‘What?’ John asked, his cheeks plump with a grin.
And Paul was back on day one, year one in primary school.
A boy, his dark hair cut in almost exactly the same short style it was today, was sitting on his own by the school wall, chewing the strap of his backpack, his eyes heavy with tears. Paul had already been going to nursery for a couple of years so leaving his parents and going to school didn’t faze him, but something in him recognised the emotion the other boy was battling to hide.
Then an older boy walked over, kicked John’s foot.
‘Poof,’ he snarled.
John was up in the bigger boy’s face.
‘Shut it,’ he shouted and pushed out.
The older boy didn’t expect the speed of John’s response and fell back. Then in the manner of all bullies who are called out on their actions, he scurried off. Paul decided there and then that this was a boy he would like to be his friend.
‘What?’ John asked again.
‘Just remembering that first day in primary school.’
They both chuckled.
Then John grew sombre and looked to Paul as if he was trying to come to a decision.
‘When I was over at Mum’s I found this in the loft.’
John pulled what looked like a photograph out of his pocket.
Paul picked it up. ‘Look at you with the weird haircut.’
He looked at John. ‘I don’t remember your hair ever being like this.’
John looked like he couldn’t either and moved the subject on.
‘What’s strange is it says on the back “the boys”.
That was always how Dad referred to me and Chris – who’s only two years younger than me, whereas this child is little more than a toddler. Who the hell is he?’