Excerpt from The Sea Gate by Jane Johnson, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Sea Gate

by Jane Johnson

The Sea Gate by Jane Johnson X
The Sea Gate by Jane Johnson
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    Jan 2021, 416 pages

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Chapter 1
Becky

I TAKE THE PHONE AWAY from my ear, end the call and stand looking at the impression of oil and powder left on its blank screen, traces of make-up I so rarely wear. I wipe the mark away with my thumb and transfer the phone to my jacket pocket. It is hard to take in the words that have just oozed into my ear.

There was something on the scan…

Across the street two women are still engaged in the noisy altercation that started just as my phone rang. The woman in the red car drove into a parking space that the woman in the muddy SUV was preparing to reverse into. The traffic is halted on either side of them: people have stopped on the pavement to watch the argument. Some are taking sides. Heated words are exchanged, photos taken. A moment ago I had been diverted by this intense little drama; now, it seems absurd and I experience the urge to run across the road and tell them that life is too short to get angry over something so trivial. But I don't. I am feeling dislocated from the world. Words from the phone call buzz in my brain like angry bees, then spiral away again, trailing bitterness and regret, tinged with fear.

It may not be anything, but we should scan you again, just to be sure.

I find myself thinking, 'I must tell Mum,' and then remember why I am here. I cannot tell Mum anything ever again, not in this life.

A commuter sounds two angry blasts of their horn, summoning me back, and I watch the muddy-SUV woman concede defeat and drive off with a screech of tyres. The tide of humanity resumes, flowing around me as I stand on the corner, a still point, a pebble in a stream. Then the horn sounds again and someone calls my name.

'Becky? Come on, we're going to be late. Honestly, women drivers, shouldn't be on the road. I've been sitting in this sodding traffic for ten minutes!'

It is my brother, James, in his shiny Lexus, and beside him in the passenger seat his wife, Evie. My heart sinks. At the best of times Evie makes me feel like a bag lady, with her exquisitely put-together look and superior manner. Feeling self-conscious in my ill-fitting black skirt, which I have not worn in years, I scramble into the back seat and give them a tight smile, keeping my terrors behind my teeth. My brother and his wife feel like members of a different species to me.

Funerals are uncomfortable occasions, no matter what your connection to the deceased. In unfamiliar surroundings, in unfamiliar clothes, you bid farewell to someone who can no longer see or hear you, and are not sure whether to sit or stand, almost more stressed by the rituals than by the loss itself. There is always something to knock you out of the moment, something out of place: the brisk compassion of a celebrant who never even met your loved one; a child's cry erupting suddenly into silent contemplation; a bum note sung during the parting hymn. And when this happens you stand alone in your own head, your connection to the departed suddenly stretched so thin it is like a span of spider silk trembling in the air, and you don't know who you are. And then, just as abruptly, grief at the transience of life almost bowls you over and you find your hands are trembling so much that the words on the hymn sheet have become unreadable. And then you catch yourself wondering if you are honestly grieving for your mother, or whether a selfish grain or two of self-pity may not have crept in and salted the occasion with terror about your own mortality.

At the end of the service I look around. Apart from James and Evie, I recognize only a couple of Mum's friends from the Ramblers' Association – one chap accompanied by a grey-haired woman in a dark red hat with a net veil that has probably not been out of its box since a wedding decades ago – and a family of four: Rosa, a blonde Lithuanian woman who used to come in to help Mum with the housework, her husband and their two children. Rosa and I hug briefly afterwards outside the crematorium in the bright daylight.

Excerpted from The Sea Gate by Steven Johnson. Copyright © 2021 by Steven Johnson. Excerpted by permission of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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