We're delighted to present an extract from Line the debut novel by Niall Bourke, published by Tramp Press.
Willard, his mother, and his girlfriend Nyla have spent their entire lives in an endless procession, where daily survival is dictated by the ultimate imperative: obey the rules, or lose your place in the Line.
Everything changes the day Willard's mother dies and he finds a book hidden among her few belongings...
The rumour blows down the Line like wind through long grass.
Willard and Mother are sitting at the fire drinking coffee when it comes. Mr Hummel, having finished his matins, is rolling his mat as usual with his white gown lit a ragged orange through the flames but then he does something they have never seen him do before.
Not in all their years.
He stops before his mat is fully rolled.
He cocks his head as if he has heard something creeping in the pre-dawn shadows, a noise grabbing him like some dark lasso, and he stands up, disappears into the murk leaving the mat behind. They wait for him to come back, with Mother wound so tight her hands turn pale from gripping her thighs. They sit, staring at his half-rolled mat. At last the wings of Mr Hummel's voice flap out of the gloom towards them.
– They say it is closed, that they are letting no more in. I don’t know what to make of it but I thought you should know.
And with that Mr Hummel finishes rolling up his mat and disappears. Willard stares at Mother across the fire.
– What do we do? he says.
– Nothing, says Mother.
– But if it’s closed?
– Everyone else is still Lining Up.
– What if they’re wrong?
Mother sets her mug down in the dust.
– Stupidity and death have much in common, she says. Those affected never know, so it’s the people closest to them who carry their burden. Tell me this, why have we Lined Up so long?
– To reach the front, says Willard.
– Exactly, says Mother. Yet you would have us leave and go to the back?
– I –
You would have us betray our ancestors? Turn our backs on those who joined for us at the beginning, on all the others who held our places until we were ready to take them? Do you think the whole world has Lined Up for nothing? That everyone is so wrong, so stupid, but that you alone are right?
– I don’t know, says Willard, giving up.
– Then it’s lucky I know. It’s lucky I know we are here for something important. Unimaginably important. And if we leave now we will just rejoin later, and at the back. At the very back. Can you even imagine how far that is? How many places we would lose?
Willard can’t. He takes a mouthful of his coffee.
– What if we didn’t? he says.
– Didn’t what?
Mother shakes her head and then shifts in her dirt-hollow to get comfortable.
– I always told you I never knew your father, and you always knew it was a lie. Well, here’s your answer. And I promise you’ll not like it, but since you persist with this silliness maybe it’s time you heard. I did know him. And so did you, of a sort. He lived with us, here. In this tent,
when you were still inside me. But he left us both. He left the Line.
The breeze picks up and a flapping sound starts, maybe the wind pulling at a tarpaulin or some flag being shaken or a leather belt doubled over and being snapped open and closed, something sharp and constant and elsewhere.
– No one’s ever left.
– No, but your father did. It’s a strange place we inhabit indeed. He was an apostate, Willard, and that is a fact.
Willard’s breathing quickens, becomes shorter, more rapid, and in between the cracks of the flapping tarp- skins he begins to hear the shallow janglings of his heart.
– The morning he left I woke up and I knew straight- away. The air felt different, not worse but different. And when I saw his bindle was gone there was no doubt. I tried to hide it. I told no one, when people began to ask for him I pretended he was lying sick in the tarp. I don’t even know why. I knew I could never keep up the pretence, but I was young, heavily pregnant. And maybe I hoped he was lying sick somewhere, screaming in agony from the inside out. Of course, the Elders found out and I had to come clean. And not only had I not raised the alarm but now I’d lied. They burned all we had, everything, every grain of pap and scrap of cloth, and I should have then been stone- hauled or had my tongue expunged – but Mr Hummel pleaded for me. If not for her, he said, then for the child. Give her one thing and, if she manages to survive, then we know it’s the Emperors who have willed it so. So that’s what they did, gave me a single square of tarp. And that’s what I did too. Survive. Begged, borrowed … worse. But I survived. I
was lucky; it was summer in the lowlands then. Otherwise those early nights would have finished me.
– That was it? The last you saw him?
– No. Two weeks later I was sleeping, wrapped in a sheet, and I was shaken awake by a ghost. He was starved, mad from dehydration, no more than a corpse. He was skeletal, almost naked, limbs so wasted that his head looked enlarged and his bulbous eyes shone out like mirrors from the grey ruins of his skin. Please, he whispered, please. There is nothing out there, nothing. Take me back.
– But you didn’t.
– No. I didn’t. He’d left me for dead – and you. And how could I anyway? The Elders would never have per- mitted it.
– And instead, you … did what?
– What I should have done the morning he fucking left. I went straight to Mr Hummel. The Elders caught him then alright, strung him up between two trees. They told the others he’d been found cutting in way up the Line and they’d brought him back to face justice. One by one we all cut the skin from his muscles. And I was the first to wield the blade. They didn’t even need to ask.
Willard does not respond; his mind is aphids. He drinks his coffee in sips, shifting beneath the scrats of his shirt as the silence of the mites riot ravenous through his ears. His vision begins to swirl, greys and blues churning in the grainy pre-dawn dark, greens and violent pinks and purples like a thumb pressed into his eye and held there.
The wind drops and the flapping fades and Willard
feels something stir. It is something that usually hides in him gnat-like, kept subdued by the ordered effort of the Line, but now it has been released. He feels it lurch, first just the twitching shadows from its spindle-limbs, but it crawls and claws up through him before emerging into his con sciousness like a spider from an egg-sack, the viscera of Mr Hummel’s words cascading from its every edge.
What if it is closed, it says, scuttling back and forth.
What if it is closed?
Willard shifts his gaze to Mother across the fire. Through the vacillations of air her skin looks so worn and broken. It seems to him not skin at all, but rather the hide of some ancient lizard or the bark of a gnarled oak, as if someone has boiled down an ancient bone into char and used it to paint the concept of a face. Look, the rumour clatters in Willard’s ear, look at her. She is so hopeless, so extraneous and inane. What will she do now that it is closed? It taunts him. It is closed now and her life has been wasted. What is the point of her now?
High up, a gyring hawk lets out a scree and the moment breaks. Willard rubs his eyes and across the fire Mother is Mother once more and his love for her returns, falling back down upon him like a water drum. And looking up towards the hawk Willard sees that dawn is breaking.
And, with it, the rumour is breaking too. He sees it thrashing through its final throes as all its lying bowels
are staked out across the purple clouds. Because right then it happens.
It finally happens.
It moves. It moves. It moves.
Line by Niall Bourke (published by Tramp Press) is out now.