Extract from The Godless Boys by Naomi Wood

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The following is an extract from Naomi Wood’s novel The Godless Boys, to be published by Picador in 2011. In England, in 1950, there was a war between the Church and the Secular Movement. Some of the Movement were expelled to the Island. This scene takes us to the Island, thirty-six years after the conflict.

[private]England, across the way, though it could not be seen tonight. The Sound was long and still. The boy crouched by the hedge, moonlight white on his skull. Underneath him was Lynemouth Town, slipping down the hill-slope toward the sea. A few lights were on here and there but mostly it was dark. You could think, up here, that the Island might be alone in this, this sea; a great glob of earth, with nothing else for miles but water. Looking at the Sound like that, so deceptively calm, always made Nathaniel think of his da, and how the sea had gobbled him up in its brackish waters. His da’s boat would be out there, its keel dragging along the sea-bed, his body wet and strewn. His da had been one of the first men of the Secular Movement to be expelled to the Island, in 1951, a fact which made Nathaniel very proud. Jack Malraux had been a plumber in Hartlepool before being found responsible for one of the church burnings in the summer of 1950 and deported here.

On the Island, Jack’s trade had been fishing and he’d done well from it. Nathaniel remembered the excitement of greeting his dad in Warkworth Bay when he came home for the weekend, and the rolling sound of the chains fixing the boat to the pier. When he left again, on the Monday morning, Nathaniel would accompany him down to the jetty, in the plum-blue mornings, in the winter months when the Island was all diamonded frost and sheeted ice, his hand in his father’s hand, as they walked down toward the water’s edge. Nathaniel would watch the boat leave, his da waving from the deck, knowing himself to be a softly shrinking dot in the distance, as his father sailed away to fish.

It was an English boat Jack had sailed out on. An English boat Jack had gone down with. No rocks or storms; most likely the caulk had given and the boat had sunk. Nathaniel imagined the English laughing when they had given the Islanders that boat, they must have known it couldn’t have been sea-worthy for long. A very English murder, this: unseen, bloodless, far away in time. The moon was a dab of light now, not much more, what with the clouds tonight. Nathaniel wondered if there might be a twin of him, in England, a bald boy too, looking out across this sea, thinking about him. He wondered if his English twin also imagined descending on his scalp a cudgel to watch the blood ream. He’d like that; he’d always imagined English blood thick, like a pool of liquorice he’d seen melting one day last summer. The boy ranked his da’s death as one of the Island’s finest humiliations at the hands of the English. Worse than the Newcastle riots, worse than the Secular Deportations of ’51 or ’77; his da’s death in that English boat rankled most.

*

Nathaniel set off up Marley Hill. He was a bald boy with a long throat, dressed in tight trousers and a military jacket, with a brocade on the epaulettes. The sleeves were a touch short and the studs of his wrist were frozen in the night. The trousers too were short of his ankles so that they showed the slope of his boots, which had been his da’s, and which he’d given a rollicky-polish this evening to prepare for the scrap tonight. The boy wore handkerchiefs in the boots to stop his feet slipping. Red braces swaddled him neatly like a baby. That afternoon, in his ma’s bathroom, he’d used his da’s old pot of Pomade Divine. He knew it was meant for hair but he smeared it richly on his lips. On the front of the tin was a man with slick hair and a leer; Pomade Divine tasted of apples. The hill was steep and the grass nearly bald with the Island’s shearing winds. It was freezing, but he wouldn’t shiver: because what was November on the Island but a cold to knock the breath from you? And leafless trees, and freezing nights, and the wind from off the Sound enough to make your balls into clams?

In the dark peat, further from the path, mushrooms grew, a whole moony lot of them. Something about their soft bright bonnets made him feel sick, or maybe it was not that, but the gills underneath, that made him pure want to heave. Nathaniel looked out for the Island’s flowers his da had told him of: bog cotton, sandwort and rock-cress, but it was too dark to see anything but the mushroom domes. Just before the hilltop he ambled over to one of the swelling white patches and mashed the mushrooms into the grass. Warkworth Bay was visible now and you could see where the skerries were from the waves’ white froth. The pier, which would welcome the English boat tonight, had disappeared in the dark.

Nathaniel placed his boots down hard, since a misplaced foot could send a boy tumbling off the cliffs to the Sound. Where up at the summit Warkworth Town had been a shimmer of white, the houses now reared above him, their walls thick and coated in sea-spray, the slated roofs dark. Handkerchiefs slipped gently in his boots. He wondered when he would fill them.


Shop awnings were going mad in the sea’s fetch, and the Islanders were scurrying about beneath them, thronging the grocers, and the fishmongers, their coats billowing out from them, big as sails. Nothing much had changed in Maiden’s Square since the emergency powers had brought the first men and women of the Movement here in 1951. In an elegant hand, the signs that hung from the shop-fronts read: Stansky & Sons (above the fishmongers), Buttons (above Mrs Bingley’s clothes shop), Caro’s Launderette, Forrester’s Funerary Services, and a grocers, doctors, and hardware shop, for ‘tools, cutlery and hardware’, and ‘oils, paints and varnishes’. And in rippled black glass, the walls unpainted, unlike the rest, the museum stood at the north-eastern corner of the square. Walled in photographs, it told the Island’s short history, and held the books and pamphlets the Church sent over to educate their godless kin. Mostly, they ended up graffitti’d – often by Nathaniel and his boys. He lit a cigarette, not caring who saw him. The shoppers gave him a funny look. He grinned: a smile which broke his face in two like a split egg. He stretched out on the bench, waiting, and watching. Mr Forrester, in the funeral home, was working at his desk. Two girls from school were walking arm in arm from the launderette; one had a dress draped over her arm. Nathaniel winked at her and told her he’d take her somewhere nice in that; she flushed and looked away. Fishskins glistened in the mongers. Arthur Stansky went about his work, pausing here and there to drag scale and innards down his pinny. Arthur was a bloody mess but he seemed not to mind. And there Jake came, lumbering along, a little late, something about his get-up – which was the same as Nathaniel’s – a little askew, the jacket too tight about the boy’s middle, the boots a little dull. Aye, his boots could do with a polish. He didn’t look a Malade; not like him; not as sharp by halves. Jake was an enormous boy, a head taller than Nathaniel, with his arms hanging down to those hands the width of a spade apiece. His soft bulk always surprised Nathaniel, as if a separate, leaner Jake existed in Nathaniel’s imagination. Aye, there was something whale-like about the boy, something gentle but irritating about the boy’s great tonnage.

‘I told you not to let your hair grow so long,’ said Nathaniel, when the boy was close enough. Bristles spun from the boy’s crown.

‘Aye,’ Jake said, scratching his head.

‘Well?’

‘Mam’s asked me to grow it a bit. She says I look like a victim of summat, when I’m all shaven, like.’

‘On yer bike, Jakob. Your mam’s got nowt to do with it.’

‘I can’t help what she says.’

‘Did you say you were a Malade? That this is what our gang is for, now? That all us boys are like this?’

‘No.’ And then: ‘Aye.’

‘And what does “No. Aye,” mean now?’ Jake shrugged and eyed Nathaniel’s cigarette hungrily. ‘How is your mam?’

‘Well,’ said Jake, ‘And Mammy Malraux?’

‘Fine,’ and then, to goad him, ‘When is your mam to invite me to fish supper?’

‘You know you’re not allowed back to mine,’ Jake said, and Nathaniel knew this but still liked to crab him about it. Just to get Jake upset was pleasure enough for him.

They watched people come in and out of the shops, carting their plaid trolleys or shopping bags, their faces flat in the lamplight. Nathaniel and Jake were waiting for the rest of the gang, the Malades, waiting for their skulls to come bobbing down Marley Hill toward Maiden’s Square.

Tonight, Nicholas Tucker was to be initiated into the gang. They didn’t speak for a bit, and Nathaniel was reminded of Jake’s habit of wetting his lips, over and over again, furtively, with his tongue. Nath was about to reprimand him, but something about his eyes, their baleful stare, hooded by the wide flat lids, stopped him. Jake’s hands, on the spread thighs, looked babyish. Who knew where the bones were in those things?

‘Can I have a cig, Nath?’

‘No. I don’t have many left.’

‘Are you getting no more from the Boatie tonight?’

‘No. Not tonight. Got nothing to exchange them for.’

‘Your ma’s pills?’

‘There’s not enough left. I have to leave some for her, aye.’

‘Have you been taking them?’

‘Stop crabbing me, Jake! You’re an old woman at times. My ma forgot to order more. So no pills, no cigarettes. We’ll get more next week.’ Nathaniel squashed the cigarette onto the bench. He had smoked it too quickly and a yellowy sort of nausea passed from his gut to his throat. An exploratory belch made him feel better. Arthur held a fish it by its tail in the monger’s waxed light. Without taking his eyes off it – it might have been skate! And how long was it since he’d eaten fish! – Nathaniel said: ‘When are the boys coming?’

‘At six. As we arranged.’

And though he knew the answer already he asked, ‘And who is it? Who’s to be the Freshcut?’

‘Nicholas Tucker.’

‘Lummy.’ Nathaniel’s hand over his scalp produced a lovely rasp; he wondered if only he was party to the sound. ‘What a good idea. Did he suggest it himself?’

‘Aye. Said he wanted to be in the gang. So I said I’d ask you.’


Later that night Nathaniel’s gang stood in the square, waiting for the games to begin. The Malades were a beautiful bunch, in the way that scraping the scalp of all the fuss brought out their bonny eyes, their full boys’ lips. What slick little outfits they had managed! They were all dressed like Nathaniel and did not wear much, for November. Their mams pure despaired of them, urging an extra scarf on them, or a more sensible jacket, which they always – in fear of Nathaniel – refused, because who might know what kind of mood he was in, whether the humiliation might be a whole-scale attack, or something worse; total exclusion from the gang. They were all so pale; no-one darker than a candlestick. But there was something very pretty about them, too, quite a nursery of daft infants. The boys gossiped about the Islanders; who might be showing signs of churchliness and who might be their next target. They talked about their mams and what they were up to. For those fortunate enough, they talked about their da’s on the fishing boats, and what they had done with them on the rare weekends that they were back on Island soil.

One boy stood apart. He looked nervous, and was moving a finger up and down his collar. He was a good-looking boy, softfeatured, younger than the rest, his eyes darting from Nathaniel to Jake, not knowing which one to settle on. He stood in front of Forrester’s funeral parlour.

‘All right, boy,’ Nathaniel said to him across the way, ‘you’re right at the dead centre over there, aye. Why don’t you come and have a chat with us?’

‘Aye,’ he said, but he didn’t move. In the latening evening, the night had become cooler still.

‘I hear you want to be in our gang.’

The boy took cautious steps toward them. ‘Aye,’ he said.

‘Have you been to the museum, of late?’

‘I went last year.’

Nathaniel’s laugh was high and easy. ‘Not good enough. You have to go often – many times – once a month, maybe, or every week, so you can ken your past. You’ve got to see the churchburnings, you’ve got to see how the Movement were kicked out of England in ‘51, and then again in ’77. You’ve got to see how easy it is for faith to hijack your head! Oh, aye, you’ve heard what your mammy has said, and your da, as he dandled you on his knee before the fire. But unless you go to the museum, and often at that, you won’t understand the English mentality. You won’t understand how God has grown up around the English like cobwebs, while they weren’t paying attention, and how it could, any minute, here, if our boys aren’t alertful of the signs. You’ve got to go so you can understand who you are. A child not just of mammy and pappy, aye, but of the Movement. So it’s baneful shocking, you see, to hear it was a year ago you went.’ The boy’s lips trembled. There was nowhere to hide his shame and it rose as a pink wave from his throat to his brow.

‘Och, now, Nicholas, not to worry. Next time, aye?’ And Nathaniel chucked him on the back of his pate, lightly, and smiled at him, so that Nicholas lost the watchful look and he smiled back, hesitantly. ‘I like your hair, Nicholas, did you do that yourself?’

‘Aye,’ he said.

‘Did your mam blub when she saw you?’

‘She gave me a right bollocking, yeah.’

The boys were a ring around him now, their baldheads half in shadow, half in light. Some of them laughed, remembering how their mams had been when they too had shaved their scalps. ‘Well, you’re all done now. And your scalp shines like a lovely penny. Now we’re just going to ask you a few questions, get you to commit to some things. We’ve all taken the oaths. Don’t worry. No fish heads or guts or any of that daft shite you might have heard of. No, boy. Just some firm moral matters of principle, which you might find in any tough boys’ gang. We’re a good lot, us, but we don’t like casuals. Understand?’ Nicholas nodded his head. Nathaniel leaned in and said very tenderly, like a father might, ‘Then you’ll be a Malade, like me, like Jake, like all of the boys, and you can help us with the cause.’ Nathaniel looked around the group. ‘There is a ring of spies on this Island, working for England. Trying to get us back into God’s acre. Soon the Island will be as faithful as London! Aye, aye: the walls of the church are not built in the freezing air but in the ramparts of the heart! Here, an aunt may be praying at night. There, a brother may be caught reading the English rag – or worse, fingering pages of scripture. One moment they’ll merely be faithful, the next they’ll be at Warkworth beach welcoming English warships. So,’ he turned to Nicholas. ‘This is what I’m going to ask you. Have you ever been a Got?’

‘No,’ the boy said.

‘Are you sure, now?’

‘Aye.’

‘No-one in your family, either? A Got? A believer?’

‘No.’

‘Tell me, boy, have you ever believed? Have you ever felt the blood of God in your veins? Or heard his words in your mind?’

‘No.’

‘Are you sure of that, boy? We’ll understand if you have. It can be nice. The soft babble of God in your ears.’ Sweat had pricked high on Nicholas’s forehead. Where his skin had been white it was now greenish about the chops, froggy and damp.

‘He’s a great comforter to those lost at sea.’

‘No.’

‘Not a prayer, sweetheart? Not a moan for a molly-coddle when pappy popped his boots? The sea is cruel to us, you couldn’t say we’re not in baneful need.’

Nicholas’s voice was barely a whisper. ‘No. Nothing. I promise.’

The boys were tense and ready. Their boots kept edging them closer. Nathaniel felt a great ministry within him, a great stillness, holding back until they were really at the dampish verge. Though his sight was fixed on Nicholas, the other boys hung, weightless, in the corner of his vision. ‘And if your ma had gone all syrupy with faith? And decided to spy for England? Or your dad? Would you tell us? Would you let your boys in kin know of the failings of your family?’

‘Aye, aye.’

‘One last thing; then you’ll be just like us: a Malade, through and through.’ Nathaniel reared his fist and caught his knuckles on the boy’s lips. Blood issued from his lips, as red as jam. The boys’ laughter was a distant sound as if they were a great way from him, beyond the Sound, even. Nathaniel slipped his index finger into the wet hollow of the boy’s mouth. ‘Now a Malade,’ he said again, ‘through, and through.’

For a moment, Nicholas was aghast. Something hallucinatory about the blood coming from – where was it? His tongue? Or had it been his nose that had burst? It was a brown taste in his mouth. Seconds passed, and he cupped his face in his hands: he had expected this, this predicted violence. And it had not been so bad. And so he smiled, the blood like a tonic on his tongue. Nathaniel cooed, ‘Aye, Nicholas,’ and ruffled the baby spikes of his hair.[/private]

Naomi Wood is 27 and lives in London. Her debut novel The Godless Boys will be published in April 2011 by Picador. Naomi has an MA in Creative Writing from UEA, where she is also studying for her PhD. She is currently Kluge Fellow at the Library of Congress in Washington DC, where she is researching her second novel, Miss Hemingway, a fictional account of the lives of the Hemingway women.

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