Waking is like rising from the dead. The slow climb out of
sleep, shapes appearing out of blackness, the alarm clock
ringing like the last trump. Ruth flings out an arm and
sends the alarm crashing to the floor, where it carries on
ringing reproachfully. Groaning, she levers herself upright
and pulls up the blind. Still dark. Its just not right, she tells
herself, wincing as her feet touch the cold floorboards.
Neolithic man would have gone to sleep when the sun set
and woken when it rose. What makes us think this is the
right way round? Falling asleep on the sofa during
Newsnight, then dragging herself upstairs to lie sleepless
over a Rebus book, listen to the World Service on the
radio, count Iron Age burial sites to make herself sleep and
now this; waking in the darkness feeling like death. It just
wasnt right somehow.
In the shower, the water unglues her eyes and sends her hair streaming down her back. This is baptism, if you like. Ruths parents are Born Again Christians and are fans of Full Immersion For Adults (capitals obligatory). Ruth can quite see the attraction, apart from the slight problem of not believing in God. Still, her parents are Praying For Her (capitals again), which should be a comfort but somehow isnt.
Ruth rubs herself vigorously with a towel and stares unseeingly into the steamy mirror. She knows what she will see and the knowledge is no more comforting than her parents prayers. Shoulder-length brown hair, blue eyes, pale skin and however she stands on the scales, which are at present banished to the broom cupboard she weighs twelve and a half stone. She sighs (I am not defined by my weight, fat is a state of mind) and squeezes toothpaste onto her brush. She has a very beautiful smile, but she isnt smiling now and so this too is low on the list of comforts.
Clean, damp-footed, she pads back into the bedroom. She has lectures today so will have to dress slightly more formally than usual. Black trousers, black shapeless top. She hardly looks as she selects the clothes. She likes colour and fabric; in fact she has quite a weakness for sequins, bugle beads and diamanté. You wouldnt know this from her wardrobe though. A dour row of dark trousers and loose, dark jackets. The drawers in her pine dressing table are full of black jumpers, long cardigans and opaque tights. She used to wear jeans until she hit size sixteen and now favours cords, black, of course. Jeans are too young for her anyhow. She will be forty next year.
Dressed, she negotiates the stairs. The tiny cottage has very steep stairs, more like a ladder than anything else. Ill never be able to manage those her mother had said on her one and only visit. Whos asking you to, Ruth had replied silently. Her parents had stayed at the local B and B as Ruth has only one bedroom; going upstairs was strictly unnecessary (there is a downstairs loo but it is by the kitchen, which her mother considers unsanitary). The stairs lead directly into the sitting room: sanded wooden floor, comfortable faded sofa, large flat-screen TV, books covering every available surface. Archaeology books mostly but also murder mysteries, cookery books, travel guides, doctornurse romances. Ruth is nothing if not eclectic in her tastes. She has a particular fondness for childrens books about ballet or horse-riding, neither of which she has ever tried.
The kitchen barely has room for a fridge and a cooker but Ruth, despite the books, rarely cooks. Now she switches on the kettle and puts bread into the toaster, clicking on Radio 4 with a practised hand. Then she collects her lecture notes and sits at the table by the front window. Her favourite place. Beyond her front garden with its windblown grass and broken blue fence there is nothingness. Just miles and miles of marshland, spotted with stunted gorse bushes and criss-crossed with small, treacherous streams. Sometimes, at this time of year, you see great flocks of wild geese wheeling across the sky, their feathers turning pink in the rays of the rising sun. But today, on this grey winter morning, there is not a living creature as far as the eye can see. Everything is pale and washed out, grey-green merging to grey-white as the marsh meets the sky. Far off is the sea, a line of darker grey, seagulls riding in on the waves. It is utterly desolate and Ruth has absolutely no idea why she loves it so much.
Excerpted from The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths. Copyright © 2010 by Elly Griffiths. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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