Excerpt from Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Three Things About Elsie

by Joanna Cannon

Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon X
Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon
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    Aug 2018, 384 pages

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Sarah Tomp

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I watched someone walk through the space where it had stood. Everything carried on as it always did. People rushed from place to place to keep out of the rain, uniforms traveled along stairwells, pigeons walked out their time along the lengths of guttering and waited for the right time to fly away to somewhere else. It felt as though the impression this woman had made on the world was so unimportant, so insignificant, it dissolved away the very moment she left.

"You're very maudlin this afternoon, Florence."

"I'm just commenting," I said. "I'm not allowed to do very much anymore, but I'm still allowed to comment."

I was fairly sure she was smiling, but I couldn't tell you for definite, because I wouldn't give in to looking.

* * *

I kept my eye on number twelve, but nothing happened of any interest. About three o'clock, Miss Bissell marched up the communal stairwell with a clipboard and an air of urgency.

"Miss Bissell," I said, pointing.

"Indeed," Elsie said.

"She has a clipboard, Elsie. She must be doing his levels."

"So it would seem," she said.

We measured out our afternoon with pots of tea, but the rinse of a September light seemed to push at the hours, spreading the day to its very edges. I always thought September was an odd month. All you were really doing was waiting for the cold weather to arrive, the back end, and we seemed to waste most of our time just staring at the sky, waiting to be reassured it was happening. The stretch of summer had long since disappeared, but we hadn't quite reached the frost yet, the skate of icy pavements and the prickly breath of a winter's morning. Instead, we were paused in a pavement-gray life with porridge skies. Each afternoon was the same. Around four o'clock, one of us would say the nights were drawing in, and we would nod and agree with each other. Between us, we would work out how many days it was until Christmas, and we would say how quickly the time passes, and saying how quickly the time passes would help to pass the time a little more.

The winters at Cherry Tree always took longer, and this would be my fifth. It was called sheltered accommodation, but I'd never quite been able to work out what it was we were being sheltered from. The world was still out there. It crept in through the newspapers and the television. It slid between the cracks of other people's conversation and sang out from their mobile telephones. We were the ones hidden away, collected up and ushered out of sight, and I often wondered if it was actually the world that was being sheltered from us.

"The nights are drawing in, aren't they?" said Elsie.

We watched the lights begin to switch on in the flats opposite. Rows of windows. A jigsaw of people, whose evenings leaked out into a September dusk. It was the time of day when you could see into different lives, a slice of someone else, before their world became curtained and secretive.

"Someone's in number twelve," I said.

Most of the uniforms had gone home, and Miss Bissell and her Mini Metro had long since sped through the lights at the bottom of the road and vanished up the bypass, but a bulb had been switched on in the lounge of number twelve. It faltered, like the reel of a cine film, and I watched, frame by frame, as a man walked across the room. Middle-aged, I thought, but the faulty light made it difficult to be sure.

I felt a catch of breath in my throat. "How strange," I said.

"How many days it is until Christmas?" said Elsie. "Do you want to count them with me?"

"No," I said. "I don't, especially."

"It's ninety-eight," she said. "Ninety-eight!"

"Is it?"

I watched the man. He wore a hat and an overcoat, and he had his back to us, but every so often he showed the edge of his face, and my mind tried to make sense out of my eyes.

Excerpted from Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon. Copyright © 2018 by Joanna Cannon. Excerpted by permission of Scribner. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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