Sailing Through the Amber
Book Sample


The last thing he saw of his mother she was running into the dark, her red shoes, shiny, built like convertibles, almost running her along. He didn’t stop her, he didn’t call out after her as she ran towards the pool of streetlight, her dress was covered in zigzags of light and dark, her shoes were red spoons balanced on stacks, as she turned the corner her hair rippled suddenly under the waves of lamplight like water rippling round the legs of the pier, she was gone.

In the moonlit street now there were only shadows. I didn’t call out after her, he thought, her shoes running her along. The first day she had brought them home she sat them on the floor, heels together, toes pointed out, they look as if they could walk along all by themselves, she said, ballet position number five.

They look heavy, he said. They look heavy, she said, but actually they feel really light.

‘They’ll make the same noise as the clogs,’ he said, picking them up. The sound of her clogs trekking across the floorboards night after night drove him crazy, it was so desolate.


In the street now there was moonlight, running over the roof tiles, speeding along the tin flashings of the ridge; above the roof the night rose cold and clear, a green glow.

‘Are you sure,’ said the man sitting in the car, ‘that this is what you want?’

‘You don’t know anything any more, Dad,’ he said. ‘Everything’s changed.’


They walked in through the gate. Under the verandah striped light lay on the tiles; the fruit of the cumquat tree was hard and pale, like moonfruit. As he lifted his hand up to the lock smooth tiger stripes of light and shadow slid across his skin, and in through the open door, over the carpet, hallway up the wall. His father’s shape was black at the door.

‘It might be better to leave tomorrow, by daylight,’ the man said.

‘More formal; not like running away.’ The way I did it, he meant.

‘Better for her?’

‘Better for you,’ the man said.

‘You don’t know anything, Dad,’ he said; ‘you just don’t know.’ His voice, breaking in the darkness the way the night was now, from the open windows at the back, breaking into the rooms. A sea of stocks, white and lacy, glimmered along the garden’s edge. Scents came in, and sounds, the house was awash and through it his own voice like a seagull’s, complaining; it rose, it hung its two winged hooks of complaint, Everything’s changed.

Even through all the clamour of the night, for sounds were now pouring in, the rasp of the bee in its cell, the rattle of fibres on the moth’s wing, the shag of colours shifting on the tiger’s coat, he heard his father’s sigh.

‘Tomorrow, then,’ he said.

‘I’ll have to leave you behind,’ he had said the first time, ‘it’ll kill her if you leave too.’ Sometimes letters had come, with postmarks so faint and faded you couldn’t tell where he had been. From the zoo came the sound of the gibbons howling; they swung, hanging from one long arm, their bodies dangling, their heads turned to the moon. On his white-painted table he drew black commas with his thickest pen; little scoops of blackness, like the night gibbons’ cries. Over the house faint blue stars postmarked the sky, covering it with traces that he could not read.


His mother’s friends sat on stools, at the island bar.

‘What I can’t stand about the phonecalls is that he’s so bloody friendly,’ his mother said.

His father took him to chambers, to meet the Judge. At the end of the table there were eyes, and bones. ‘So this is the boy,’ the bones said, ‘is he a bit of a rascal, eh...? is he a bit of a scalliwag?’

‘Those old horrors,’ his mother said, ‘they don’t know anything about real women and children.’

‘Does he mind?’ her friends asked. ‘He just shrugs,’ his mother said, ‘whenever I ask him about any of this he just shrugs.’

Boys do that, said her friends, they slouch, they slump, they shrug.

‘It probably means he’s quite well adjusted,’ one of them said. They swung round on their stools to take a good look. ‘Look at him leaning against the fridge,’ his mother said, ‘I swear to God if I opened it he’d just fall in.’

‘You’re happy enough, anyway,’ she said.


In the dark funnel of web he entered when he was sleeping something dodged, waiting. He was whirling, he was sick; he was alone in there. He woke with a jerk; lying on his back he saw how his hands were gripping the edges of the sheet. Through the window the moonlight fell in a brilliant silent square.

He got up and went through the house. His mother’s room was empty. In the side wings of her mirror, in the light coming in off the street he looked at his face; turned away, in quarter profile, it was the face of a stranger, older, more resolute. With one hand, experimentally, he lifted the side of his hair.

He wasn’t the only kid at school whose parents had split up. ‘Far from it, boys,’ he said, the way old Polly Barber said it in science. ‘You may think the world of physical phenomena is just waiting there to be explained, far from it, boys; everything is in movement; everything flows.’

‘I know that,’ said his mother, ‘it’s Greek, everything flows.’

Water flowed by under the bridge breaking into curls of light round the leg of the pier the night his father left. Together they had leaned over the bright chopping water. ‘It’ll feel different once we’re all a bit further down the track,’ his father said.

‘I feel as if my heart is breaking, watching you suffer,’ his mother said. ‘Just try to see it as part of the grand human comedy,’ his French teacher said, ‘even though you haven’t read Balzac.’

He looked round his mother’s room. There were things heaped everywhere. On the mantlepiece a giant vase of toppling lilies had leaked their yellow pollen. The mirror beneath the shelf was dark; he was only an outline in it, against the window’s light. After a while he found what he wanted. ‘I’ll be all right,’ he said aloud to the empty room.

Back in his own room again he stood at the window looking out to the hills. Soon he’d be there himself, gone where the others went, Sally, and Olive from the school down the road, old Tom Barley on his motorbike, streaming through the hills, under the wide and starry sky. He’d been the one who found Tom early one morning, the Harley carefully covered in its shed, the light still burning yellow in the quiet room; the window had lost its glass; light rustled in through the tree outside, bending to make its way past the old broken blind, Tom with one hand on the blanket in front of him, the other arm dropped straight down, the poem he’d copied stuck on its nail on the wall, Dig the grave and let me lie. Bare boards, rough and stringy, where the scrim and wallpaper had given way; a photo of Tom as a young man in hot weather standing next to his bike; a history of Tonga, with its pale pictures, a canvas rucksack; and the yellow globe burning thickly on. He wished he’d been allowed to keep the bike.

He reached under the bed and pulled out the box. In it was everything he needed along with what he’d got from his mother’s room. Soon it would have started, the air on his face, the hills rushing past and back behind him, on his way north, into the deep blue weather, glad did I live and gladly die, dark blue nights, light blue days and a boat, at the end of it, waiting to cross the sea. The sea with specks on it, Oceania, like a night full of stars.

He set it all out before him. Soon the night would end; he wanted to get this thing started before the end of the dark. Carefully he folded back the sheets and climbed back into bed, and took it all, and lay down. ‘And I laid me down with a will.’

Take a last look at this room; it is the last habitation before the dark. There are curtains blowing in on the dawn wind; the sky behind the neighbouring houses is a deep orange gradually turning grey. Much is lost in a fuzzy solidarity, but a few things, in the resolving light, are distinct and dear: a baseball cap on a candlestand; a U2 poster on the wall; and below it a child’s drawing, done when he was eight.

Things are moving fast. (Everything flows.) There are rods of yellow light shooting up now from behind the houses across the road and a bland blue sky is beginning to lounge across the city, accompanied by a few fast-moving, opportunistic clouds, like small fish darting through the lazy blue lounging of the sky. The edges of the high buildings down town are turning pink, and the aerials, and masts.

Will they find him? Outside a black dog howls in the wind, the sky is moving by, faster and faster, over the whirling town. He is coasting in greyness, on the near side of the line; a small dribble of saliva is edging out. On the wall above his bed the curled corner of the drawing lifts slightly in the wind. It is a drawing of a boat, the lines are thin and spidery, drawn in green and brown. There is a yellow sun with rods of light shooting out, and a wavery sea. On the deck of the boat two figures, spindly but hopeful, are looking out to the side; below them are all the magical shapes of the things that live in the sea. They stand there, their arms raised in happy exclamation. Above them on a further deck, on his own, a smaller figure is looking directly ahead, out past the yellow sail cocooned around the mast, into the wind. It is he who knows where the journey is taking them, he who looks into the dear air of what lies ahead. He is alone, but stalwart, standing at the exact centre of the small high deck. Below that there are portholes, and below them again the name of the boat, written in careful letters along the bow. Its name, chosen with love, is beautiful: Windsong, it says, sailing into the future; the waves lap closely around. Windsong, he calls it, Windsong.

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