Andrew Salomon has received the PEN Literary Award for African Fiction and the Short.Sharp.Stories Award. His debut novel, Tokoloshe Song was shortlisted for the Terry Pratchett First Novel Award and his short fiction has been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
Andrew completed an MA at the Institute for Archaeology at University College London and some of his most memorable experiences have been at rock painting and engraving sites in rock shelters and subterranean caves across the world. These often find their way into his fiction.
On the first night the Circus Basilisk spends outside the Northern England town of Kirkholme, aspiring tightwire performer Flynn Oakley finds out just how easily his hard-earned and well-balanced world can fall apart.
Falsely accused of a monstrous crime and forced to flee from his adoptive home, Flynn becomes the first person to run away from the circus.
Finding himself hunted by a devious cabal formed by the candy butcher, a family of aerialists called The Flying Gremaldis and the sinister, crow-like Raffen, Flynn has to trust in unlikely alliances to try and save the only place he has ever called home.
And even though he has found shelter inside a subterranean network of tunnels and caverns under the nearby Bleaks – a desolate high moor on the other side of the fell that looms over the circus camp – something else also inhabits this netherworld, and Flynn is yet to discover if it is friend or foe.
At the western edge of Kirkholme, along a quiet lane a brisk ten-minute walk from the town’s eastern edge, stood Mrs Cotterill’s cottage.
Although she owned the cottage, Mrs Cotterill had not lived there since her husband had passed away six years earlier, preferring the greater variety of diversions available three-quarters of an hour away in coastal Morecambe. After a quiet season on the letting front, Mrs Cotterill was delighted when a Mr Zales had called and enquired about letting her cottage for an entire month – and had not even enquired about a discount, which she would have surely granted. The full month’s rental had arrived, electronically transferred into her account the next day.
Over the phone Mr Zales had declared that he was looking for a quiet spot to enjoy some extended and much-needed leisure time from his stressful work as an executive with a software firm in the city. Mrs Cotterill had thought that he came across as a real gentleman, which goes to show just how flawed assumptions made based only on the timbre of a disembodied voice can be, especially when the voice is offering to give you a decent sum of money. As soon as the rent had been paid, she had let Mr Zales know that he could pick up the cottage keys from Lucy Pearson at the local library, and that is just what he did.
But Zales had no intention of living in the cottage. He had barely set foot in it, except to draw the curtains in most of the rooms before handing the key over to his master. That night Raffen moved in.
By all accounts the cottage was something that could proudly feature on a postcard, with its ivy-covered stone walls, slate roof and flower-filled window boxes. But it had not been chosen for its visual appeal, or its advertised fast wireless internet connection, state-of-the-art coffeemaker and large Victorian bath. In actual fact it wasn’t the cottage itself that was of interest at all.
It was what stood in its back garden.
The Cotterills had only one cherished child, a son. At the dawn of young Danny Cotterill’s teenage years he had developed an obsession with drumming and this had led to his father building a fine cork-lined soundproof shed in their backyard for his only child. It served well as a place where young Danny could bash the daylights out of his drum set, without having to worry about disturbing the neighbours or stifling the development of his musical talent (nowadays no one calls him ‘Danny’ anymore and Daniel Cotterill has grown into a mildly contented accountant in Stepney and has left all that loud music business far behind, thank you very much).
Mr Cotterill was a handyman of some renown and the shed did its job so well that the noise from young Danny’s drumming could only be heard by putting an ear right against the shed’s sturdy door.
‘That shed keeps the sound right in,’ Mr Cotterill would grin and proclaim after three or more pints of ale. ‘Commit a murder in there and no one will hear the screams.’ This never failed to get a laugh from the other locals down the pub.
This night, Raffen was in the shed. He stood over a narrow table near the shed door. A candle on either side of the table’s scratched wooden top provided light. It was a rudimentary laboratory, but adequate for his purposes and while the candlelight would have frustrated almost anyone else, it provided plenty of illumination for Raffen’s keen eyes.
On the table in front of him lay a mirror that had been removed from the cottage bathroom (Zales would be sure to put it back just as he had found it when the time came to move on). The mirror’s surface was sprinkled with three powders: one the colour of old rust, one grey and another as pale as salt. Raffen mixed the powders together with a razorblade, adding and subtracting a few grains at a time until he was satisfied he had the ratio just right. Then he slid the mixed powder off the mirror and into a small glass filled with gin, which he swirled.
He stretched his wrinkled neck and cleared his throat before speaking. His voice still emerged shrill and uneven. ‘If there was an audience here I would now make some kind of sign over the glass and say a sentence in one of the old tongues, but that would just be for show.’
The liquid in the glass turned cloudy for a few moments before going clear again. ‘Looks promising,’ Raffen declared, ‘but there’s only one way to check if a batch really works. That’s where you come in. Think of yourself as a guinea pig for my greater good.’
‘I don’t understand what you’re saying,’ said a voice. ‘Please just let me go. I won’t tell anyone, I’ll never come this way again.’ The voice came from behind a dark green sheet liberated from the cottage’s spare bedroom and strung along a piece of twine secured between the shed walls. When the voice spoke again it was pleading. ‘I’ll keep my eyes closed. Or you can blindfold me and drop me anywhere outside of town. Please just untie me.’
‘I will,’ Raffen said. His eyes glowed in the candlelight, like flames reflected in pools of dirty oil. ‘You can’t dance with me all tied up.’
Raffen traced a pointed fingernail over the surface of the sheet. He pulled the sheet away. His eyes drank in the gooseflesh, the whites of the eyes exposed in terror, the quivering lips. He lived for this. From the front pocket of his jacket he retrieved a small but powerful LED flashlight that he would use soon after the contents of the glass had been consumed.
‘Drink up now. This won’t hurt,’ Raffen said. He started to laugh. It sounded like sandpaper being rubbed across a nail file. ‘Of course I can’t be absolutely sure about that, but it does seem the right thing to say.’
Outside, the night stayed peaceful.
Mr Cotterill had been dead right about the screams.
- The Equilibrist by Andrew Salomon
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