Excerpt from The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Meaning of Night

A Confession

by Michael Cox

The Meaning of Night
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2006, 672 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2007, 704 pages

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And I must not fail.

The first word I ever heard used to describe myself was: resourceful.

It was said by Tom Grexby, my dear old schoolmaster, to my mother. They were standing beneath the ancient chestnut tree that shaded the little path that led up to our house. I was tucked away out of view above them, nestled snugly in a cradle of branches I called my crow’s-nest. From here I could look out across the cliff-top to the sea beyond, dreaming for long hours of sailing away one day to find out what lay beyond the great arc of the horizon.

On this particular day – hot, still, and silent – I watched my mother as she walked down the path towards the gate, a little lace parasol laid against her shoulder. Tom was panting up the hill from the church as she reached the gate.  I had not long commenced under his tutelage, and supposed that my mother had seen him from the house and had come out expressly to speak to him about my progress.

‘He is,’ I heard him say, in reply to her enquiry, ‘a most resourceful young man.’

Later, I asked her what ‘resourceful’ meant.

‘It means you know how to get things done,’ she said, and I felt pleased that this appeared to be a quality approved of in the adult world.

‘Was Papa resourceful?’ I asked. 

She did not reply, but instead told me to run along and play, as she must return to her work.

When I was very young, I was often told – gently but firmly – by my mother to ‘run along’, and consequently spent many hours amusing myself. In summer, I would dream amongst the branches of the chestnut tree or, accompanied by Beth, our maid-of-all-work, explore along the shore-line beneath the cliff; in winter, wrapped up in an old tartan shawl on the window-seat in my bedroom, I would dream over Wanley’s Wonders of the Little World,[3] Gulliver’s Travels, or Pilgrim’s Progress (for which I cherished an inordinate fondness and fascination) until my head ached, looking out betimes across the drear waters, and wondering how far beyond the horizon, and in which direction, lay the Country of the Houyhnhnms, or the City of Destruction, and whether it would be possible to take a packet boat from Weymouth to see them for myself. Why the City of Destruction should have sounded so enticing to me, I cannot imagine, for I was terrified by Christian’s premonition that the city was about to be burned with fire from heaven, and often imagined that the same fate might befall our little village. I was also haunted throughout my childhood, though again I could not say why, by the Pilgrim’s words to Evangelist: ‘I am condemned to die, and after that to come to judgment; and I find that I am not willing to do the first, nor able to do the second.’ Puzzling though they were, I knew that the words expressed a terrible truth, and I would repeat them to myself over and again, like some occult incantation, as I lay in my cradle of branches or in my bed, or as I wandered the windy shore beneath the cliff-top.

I dreamed, too, of another place, equally fantastic and beyond possession, and yet – strangely – having the distinctness of somewhere experienced and remembered, like a taste that stays on the tongue. I would find myself standing before a great building, part castle and part palace, the home of some ancient race, as I thought, bristling with ornamented spires and battlemented turrets, and wondrous grey towers, topped with curious dome-like structures, that soared into the sky – so high that they seemed to pierce the very vault of heaven. And in my dreams it was always summer – perfect, endless summer, and there were white birds, and a great dark fish-pond surrounded by high walls. This magical place had no name, and no location, real or imagined. I had not found it described in any book, or in any story told to me. Who lived there – whether some king or caliph – I knew not. Yet I was sure that it existed somewhere on the earth, and that one day I would see it with my own eyes.

Excerpted from The Meaning of the Night, copyright (c) 2006 by Michael Cox. Reproduced with permission of the publisher, W.W.Norton and Company. All rights reserved

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