“Their story started there, bang in the middle of nothing, over and over again.”
As a former lawyer, Brighton-based writer Kate Smith is fascinated by legal constructs, particularly when they’re turned upside down and inside out to shed light on the messy business of being alive. In her debut novel The Negligents, she uses the framework of a negligence claim to explore the nature of friendship, of family loyalty and how a simple act of carelessness can have deeply toxic consequences. Read on for the beginning of Polina and Grace’s story — and if you’re suitably intrigued, pick up a copy of the book in various formats here.
‘Why do we begin with loss?’
‘Does it matter if we can’t remember the whole case name?’
‘If negligence means carelessness, why don’t we just call it carelessness?’
They were as intimidating as judges, some of them. Polina sat on the front of the desk, ankles crossed. Had she been like this when she was a student?
‘Good questions,’ she lied. ‘Why begin with loss? In the beginning is my end?’
‘Do we need to know this for the exam?’
Something in the student’s tone reminded her of Grace, the expectation that you’d furnish them with what they wanted, that that was your job. A hazy memory of Grace’s garden rushed her, the feel of it, camouflaged as any other day, or a composite of days, and she saw her own body in silhouette, cross-legged and unsure of itself, her lips chewing words on their way out. What she’d always meant to say back then, and didn’t, was don’t speak to me like that. Don’t say things about my mum.
‘Why are you always going red?’ Grace had said.
‘Don’t speak to me like … ’
‘Why? Are we under fire?’ Grace quickly ducked her head down, searched the skyline with her eyes.
Their story started there, bang in the middle of nothing, over and over again.
Grace was in the grass, using her elbows to pull her along. You have to keep low, she was saying. And watch out for mines. These were games made up by Grace for Polina, who could not describe how special this made her feel, a spike of joy to stab all the bubbles that bubbled up inside her. Grace never said sorry, but she gave you something, and that was better than sorry, though more fleeting, her favours mercurial, quicksand. Polina couldn’t ever stay the right way up in these games and it was she who always wanted to apologise although she couldn’t fathom what for. Who else is going to play with you, Grace would taunt, which made something open up in Polina’s belly, a gap she could fall through. So, she’d laugh in Grace’s face as though she was deep-down confident that Grace liked her, (because she did?). And she wondered if Grace bought the true lie Polina told herself — I am liked, I am likeable — and whether it could shield her from the thoughts that crowded in like the girls in the playground. We saw you riding your bike, Polina. You’re weird. Do all the girls in Russia think they’re boys? My mum is half Serbian, she’s not Rus … Ignore them, her mother always told her, but she didn’t tell her how.
She and Grace stamped on a strip of caps from Ed’s gun, three pops. The air was delirious with farts and gunpowder. It made Polina rash. ‘Let’s be best friends for ever!’ she said.
She wanted to go further and grab this chance to secure something from Grace, but she didn’t know how to get what she wanted. And anyway, Grace had stopped to take an urgent telephone call. She put her hand over the imaginary mouthpiece like they did in films and raised her eyebrows at Polina: ‘Did you say something?’
‘Promise?’ said Polina, her dark hair stuck to her forehead with sweat. It came out more like a plea than a question.
A student coughed. Twice. ‘I’m going to be a corporate lawyer so I don’t need to know negligence.’ Good luck with that, Polina thought.
Grace would say their story began much earlier, before they were in it. If you want loss and damage, start at the beginning. Meet my parents meeting.
Polina glanced at the clock behind the students’ heads. Half an hour left. I am here or there or elsewhere. She picked up the water bottle from the desk and drank. It wasn’t water.
EVIDENCE OF LOSS/DAMAGE
1.1: GRACE’S PARENTS MEET.
1.1.2: DOUG’S NEGLIGENCE (CARELESS DRIVING — CAUSING PI TO GIRL — WHO?) DISCUSS PSYCHIATRIC LOSS/DAMAGE RE DOUG?
There was no other sound, no scream, nothing to tell him he had just hit a little girl. But Doug saw her in his mirror as he drove away, lying on the ground with her white skirt ballooning up around her, one stick arm raised in the air as though she had a question. Zig-zagging up the road, the dog he’d swerved to avoid was grinning as it pulled an invisible owner on the lead flying backwards from its collar.
He’d braked, too hard, exactly what he told his learners not to do, and the relief of having missed the dog made him laugh until the laugh turned into a cough. High five! He held his palm up in the air and controlled the wheel with his other hand while screeching into reverse. There was a light thud, that was all.
A high-pitched mosquito whine bothered him close to his ears and he looked around jerkily for the insect even after he worked out that the sound was coming from him. ‘Please,’ he heard himself say.
In his mirror, he saw someone – the mother? Saw her sink to her knees. He didn’t think she’d seen him but, just in case, he got faster. Sweat pooled in his armpits. I’ve been working too hard, he told himself, licking his lips. It’s flu. There was no need to stop, he’d only get in the way, he’d lose his job, which he loved, and he’d be late for the new client he was due to meet right now.
When he pulled up to the house, she was already there on the pavement, waiting. She got in and smiled. She was very pretty, nervous.
Doug was shaking badly, his teeth chattering.
‘Good news, Amy,’ he said. ‘The dog’s OK.’
And he burst into tears.
1.2: GRACE BORN — APPROX. 8 YEARS AFTER 1.1. NOTE ED.
1.2.1: THIS IS ALSO WHERE GRACE’S MOTHER MEETS POLINA’S MOTHER. DOES DAMAGE START HERE? LIMITATION PERIOD?
The shop in the maternity wing looked exactly the same as it had eight years ago when Amy’s first baby, Ed, was born, still selling lavender bags made by the terminally ill, or for the terminally ill, Doug forgot which, and romantic paperbacks and mugs with blurred cats’ faces all over them. He remembered the aroma in there too, how it caught the back of your throat like essence of Portaloo. He grabbed something quickly because he was in a rush, but the lady manning the till took a fucking age to scrabble her hand around in the pastel blue Tupperware box for change. He wanted to do it for her, especially when she picked up but couldn’t keep hold of a five pence piece, like an arcade grabber. ‘Butterfingers!’ she said.
After some identical corridors and a wrong turn, the staff no help at all even when he’d slipped and almost twisted his weak ankle, finally, he found Amy, propped up on pillows second from the end. He tapped his top pocket and the cigar was still there, like an old man’s finger pointing to his heart.
‘Doug?’ she said.
‘They moved you!’
‘She was breech.’ Amy’s voice sounded hoarse and distant.
‘She’s beautiful,’ he said, before he’d even seen her.
It was already different this time around. When they’d put Ed in his arms, it was so bewildering he’d tried to hand him back. Not mine, he’d almost said. His new daughter was yeasty and suspicious, the skin on her arms all wrinkled and, as he picked her up, weighing so little he almost threw her in the air, she squinted back as though he was dazzling her, her eyes dark blue, searching his face for something she recognised. He couldn’t remember how it had felt before he loved her. ‘Grace?’ he said as his tears blurred the view.
Ed stood up from the armchair he’d folded himself into. ‘Daddy, I held her and she didn’t cry!’
‘Hello, son,’ Doug said, pretending he’d known Ed was there all along.
Grace felt for the air with her fists as soon as he put her down and it was all he could do not to scoop her right up again. Instead, Doug started to go through his pockets and, with Ed smiling next to him, made a show of the not-being-able-to-find, tapping every pocket, then Ed’s pockets. He pulled out the cigar, stretching the game, popping it into Ed’s mouth still in its cellophane wrapping, as Amy laughed, lovely and low. This was easy, he was good at this. He sneaked a little peak at Grace … but, wait a … he actually had lost the present. Ed batted the cigar away, going along with it but starting to want his present for real.
‘Our turn next. A girl, like you.’
The man sitting on the bed next to Amy’s was not, as had first appeared, wearing a baseball cap back to front; it was hair pulled into a ponytail. Doug groaned on the inside.
‘Aren’t kids wonderful? Everyone should have one.’ The man smiled, revealing buck teeth. He put a hand to his heart. ‘Howard. And this is Maggie.’
On the floor next to Maggie’s bed was the plastic bag Doug had dropped. He snatched it up, gratefully.
‘What do you think of your new sister?’ Howard asked Ed.
He was an unprepossessing, flimsy-looking man (did they call that a ninja’s build?) and, with that dirty coat and the hair pulled back, looked like something dredged from a river. Those teeth? A beaver.
‘She’s alright,’ said Ed.
‘She’s a beauty. What’s her name?’
‘Grace,’ Doug said, before Ed could.
‘We’re calling this one Apple Pie. Right, Margarita? Or Faulty Clock because her timing’s off.’
‘We steered clear of hippy names,’ said Doug.
Maggie opened her eyes to look at Howard and something passed between them that Doug couldn’t grasp. Howard whispered to her: ‘Remember the lunacy of the crust on that pie?’
She seemed to find this amusing. Doug raised his eyebrows but Amy wasn’t looking.
‘Daddy?’ said Ed, with an edge to his voice.
Howard shrugged his little shoulders at Doug. Grinning isn’t the best idea when you have teeth like that but Doug resisted the urge to point to his own teeth, like you point to your face when someone has food on theirs. Instead, he turned his attention full-beam on Ed.
‘Here you go, buddy! My family’s complete.’ Doug handed Ed the toy from the hospital shop as he recited the lines that had sounded much better in the car on the way here. Something about Howard being there compelled Doug to give it more gusto than he’d wanted to.
The toy was a cheap-looking, bug-eyed, royal blue furry monster, about the size of a pint glass. It wore a badge depicting what looked like another blue monster, itself wearing a badge.
‘Thank you,’ said Ed, unimpressed.
‘Let’s have a look,’ said Amy. Grace was making sucking noises.
Ed held it towards her, blinking.
‘It was all they had,’ Doug said to Amy, sighing as he tried to hide his irritation and the slight wave of resentment he felt as once again, whichever way you looked at it, Ed was making this all about him.
Doug didn’t look at Howard. He hoped Amy would hear in his sigh that he was being the bigger man here.
1.3: POLINA AS YOUNG GIRL WITH MOTHER, MAGGIE.
1.3.1: NOTE MAGGIE’S RELATIONSHIP WITH OWN PARENTS — LINK TO LOSS?
1.3.2: DAMAGED BY MOTHERHOOD/GENETICS/BOTH/OTHER?
Watching her daughter examine furniture in the doll’s house was making Maggie light-headed with memories. Did all mothers catch occasional glimpses of their childhood shadows, trailing behind them or climbing the walls as they walked? She wished she could take moments of nothing and everything, like now as Polina chattered, and preserve them in a jar to enjoy when she was in the mood. Think of the luxury of holding the jar up to the light whenever you felt like it, giving it a shake. If somehow you could separate the clear from the murky, the way you could filter impurities, wouldn’t love be so much easier to do?
Maggie’s own doll’s house had been perfect. Built by her father, who never made anything before or after, it had a real drawer in the kitchen containing a miniature knife, fork and two spoons. Spoons were much easier to make than knives and forks, according to Auntie Joan, who’d taken three days making one fork from a paper clip.
‘Quality takes time, Margarita,’ she’d said. ‘You must never, however tempted’ (she looked at Maggie’s father, picked up a spoon and swung it disdainfully like a turd pomander) ‘rush.’
Later, Maggie’s father confided: ‘Spoons are more complicated than they look.’
‘Sometimes I call her Auntie Moan,’ said Maggie, to make him laugh, though it wasn’t true. And he didn’t laugh.
When Maggie searched for happy memories from childhood, there was always the doll’s house, illuminated by a shaft of sunlight, its wallpaper the same — there had been a little left over — as the wallpaper in their sitting room. She wished they’d not bothered with the wallpaper in the doll’s house. On their real walls, artichoke heads as big as Maggie’s face grew and swirled magically upwards, higher than she could trace on tiptoes, but when she peered inside the doll’s house, the single artichoke head pasted on the slant looked like a jellyfish split open at the guts.
The trick with the doll’s house was to make yourself small so you could fit inside it when you needed to (as long as you didn’t look at the walls). You could eat soup with one of the spoons or hide under the miniature bed when your mother went on too long or your father raised his fist in the air like it had been jerked upwards on a puppeteer’s string.
Polina had stopped playing, and it pulled Maggie back to the present. A painting she’d never liked of a dilapidated barn caught her attention, its interior dark behind the gap of a rotting door. Whose idea had that been?
Then, and it was a startling revelation, she realised the painting depicted perfectly the gloom of her own childhood. She wondered how she’d never noticed that before and felt so exposed that, if there had been other adults in the room, she’d have made an excuse to cover the picture or take it off the wall. Inside the barn’s murky threat, she imagined a child like her, feeling about, searching for a means of escape. As an adult, the door of the barn was the place she peered out from, on the threshold, looking at the pink sky and swaying and not daring to believe it might be possible to take a step, while behind her the darkness got darker.
She used to think the black hole at the bottom of her fear was as bad as it got until she became a mother. That’s when she discovered the hole was actually a portal to somewhere worse.
She opened her eyes. ‘I’m not crying, Poli.’ I cannot have her look at the picture and see what I see, Maggie thought. As lightly as she could, she asked: ‘Do you like that picture?’
The fear was cut with other feelings, like the need to keep Polina safe, which was really just another kind of fear, to side-swipe her out of the path of the train that came for them and would not stop coming.
‘Can I sit on your lap?’ said Polina.
Maggie dropped gently to her knees and patted them. The freshly washed smell of Polina’s hair was more than Maggie deserved. What if I’m driving the train?
One night after dinner, Maggie’s father smashed up the doll’s house. ‘Poor Milan, not coping today?’ Maggie’s mother had said, as she smiled and reached across to ruffle his hair. Maggie had never seen her do that before. ‘Other men manage. Look at Uncle Gleb. Wild horses wouldn’t drag him away from that sorting office, withered arm or not.’
She should have stopped there. Maggie watched her father touch his nose. ‘Perhaps I complain,’ he conceded.
‘All this Serbian pride: I am provider!’ She banged her chest, gorilla-like. It didn’t look or sound like Maggie’s father at all. ‘And yet here we are eating watery soup. Again!’
Maggie remembered her father had tried to put their three empty bowls together, to hand them to her mother.
‘Don’t trouble yourself,’ her mother said. ‘You must be so tired.’
‘Are you stupid?’ He was up, the word ‘stupid’ coming out higher than the rest. It made Maggie feel like giggling. One of the bowls cracked clean in two when it hit the ground.
To Maggie, her mother looked like a doll. If you wanted to push her over, you could do it, easy, one shove. But he didn’t push her all the way over; the important part seemed to be that he had the power but hadn’t used it. ‘They broken my English in pieces!’
He stabbed her with stiff fingers in time with the words (broken, English, pieces) in her shoulder blades, or rather in the no man’s land between shoulder blade and armpit. Maggie’s fingers went to the same pouches on her own body.
‘You mean they break my English in pieces,’ Maggie said.
His neck turned towards her. ‘What?’
She hadn’t meant to say anything. ‘Or, they have broken?’
‘Go to bed, Maggie,’ her mother warned, her eyes not leaving his face. ‘Everything’s fine.’
Answering back was not allowed. Maggie of all people knew that. She had once presented her mother with a list when her father was out, just common sense, the answer to the question her mother had not been clever enough to work out for herself. Read it, Maggie had said, like a slap. She remembered the list, word for word, and the look on her mother’s face.
Wrong Things to Say (Don’t Do Them)
1. Auntie Joan, Uncle Andrei, Maria, Uncle Gleb.
2. Are you going to make her sit there all night?
3. Anything to do with fiddling with ring.
4. Don’t answer back.
5. When is soon?
6. Wednesday evening is not a good time and crying because it is manipulative.
Her father looked at Maggie and raised his eyebrows questioningly. At first she hadn’t understood. His eyes still on her, he pointed at the doll’s house with his index and middle fingers flexed in what she took to be an attempt at a gun, although it looked like his fingers had got stuck together with glue. He made a little ‘puff’ sound as he rested the tips of his fingers briefly on the top of Maggie’s mother’s head. Would his fingers stick to her hair? He waited for her to choose. The drawer was the only thing that remained intact after he smashed up the doll’s house. She kept it for a while.
Howard was completely different from Milan and that’s why Maggie married him. Rocks and avalanches versus jelly and ice cream. Who doesn’t love jelly and ice cream? She hadn’t known men like him existed. He brought her presents like a lovestruck schoolboy, flowers from a graveyard, a pebble, a wonky heart he’d carved from wood. He was problem-free, he said; problems to him were water off a duck’s back, and he didn’t care about material things or his looks (although he did care about his looks. His mum never made him wear a brace). Once, they spent the whole day in a field and she told him things about herself, to test the water; not the big things (not the doll’s house) and he didn’t run away. In fact, he didn’t react at all which at the time she took to be a good sign. He listened, hardly blinking, and when she finally stopped talking, he said: ‘Look! I brought a picnic.’ (Two apples.) They’d tried to make snow angels in the corn; she tamped him down with one bare foot on his chest like he’d asked her to, but he wasn’t heavy enough. It’s like lying on a bed of nails, he said, and she’d had to stop him lighting a cigarette there and then in a cornfield. You worry too much, he said. When he fell asleep — they’d done it in a rush, she couldn’t get comfortable — she noticed a tiny field mouse watching her, wringing its tiny paws. ‘You worry too much,’ she told it.
Everyone loves jelly and ice cream. And that was the problem. When she’d finally had enough of the others, the telephone calls to the house at all hours, the trips away (he worked with wood, he didn’t need trips away) the lies on top of lies, she told him, or tried to, and he left her for someone else, just like that, as though she was the one being unreasonable. The final insult, he’d said, was when she couldn’t find tears to match his, but the truth was she was through and out the other side of tears. Tears were for people who’d only just realised that everything was lost.
‘Look!’ said Polina, fascinated, holding out a plastic doll she’d just pulled from a room inside the doll’s house, forgotten from a previous game, its facial features blank and sticky like a burns victim.
Maggie tried very hard to pretend she didn’t wish she were anywhere else, but it was like fantasising about a cigarette, the pull of it, even after all these years, and pulling in the other direction was the pain in her stomach she knew she would have if she were somewhere else, missing her daughter with the intensity of a spasm. How could it still be so early in the day?
‘Breakfast?’ she said, brightly.
1.4: POLINA/GRACE, GARDEN — FEW YEARS AFTER 1.3. LADEN WITH LOSS (BLAME GARDEN OF EDEN. AREN’T GARDENS ALWAYS PLACES WHERE THINGS ARE ABOUT TO BE LOST THANKS TO THAT ONE?)
1.4.1: ALTERNATIVELY, POLINA V GRACE/GRACE V POLINA?
‘It needs more mud or it won’t work,’ said Grace. She dropped the wooden spoon and flapped her stirring arm, making her silver bangles clack. Tat, Polina’s mother had warned her, when she’d pleaded for silver bangles of her own. Do you want people to think we’re gypsies?
The girls’ bottoms were raised as they knelt side by side, stirring sludge in the paint-stained bucket.
‘You said we were going to share,’ said Polina. Her fraying blue cardigan was tight on her arms where she’d pushed up the sleeves.
‘We are sharing,’ said Grace, grabbing the spoon back.
Polina could tell from Grace’s proud face what she was going to say before she said it.
‘In-can-ta-tion,’ said Grace. It was Polina’s word, stolen. Grace opened her eyes. ‘It’s not funny, Pauline.’
Polina picked up her shoebox with its homemade holes and held it at eye-level. She carefully poked her little finger in a hole. ‘Hello in there.’ There was a whip of air from Grace’s spoon as it just missed her nose.
‘Also, Marmite,’ said Grace. ‘Go and ask my mum for some.’
‘I don’t like Marmite.’
‘If you want Caroline to suffer we’ll need Marmite.’
Polina reluctantly got to her feet.
‘I’ve done loads more potions than you!’ said Grace, without looking up. Her voice scythed the air as Polina walked through the long grass, the shoebox under her arm. ‘Or do you just want to make perfume?’
At the open kitchen door, Polina stood for a moment, intoxicated by the smell of burning jam, then checked the soles of her shoes for clods of earth, shining the tip of one with spit. The door was heavy and thick, the width of two doors glued together, and she touched its blue and yellow stained glass petals for luck. A door is a door, Polina’s mother said later. But this one is beautiful, Polina replied. Her mother held her face: for going in and going out.
Grace’s mum faced away, talking to the jam in the too-big saucepan, the size of a witch’s cauldron. Polina wanted to tiptoe on the shiny floor tiles; her whole foot fitted inside the lines of each square. She wanted to close her eyes and slide in her socks from the door to the sink, a gap wider than her whole house. The surfaces glared at her as she stepped in. There were two microwaves.
Amy turned from the sink. ‘Poli! Hello! It’s Amy, how many times?’
Polina saw that Amy had been crying and instantly forgot what she’d come in for. ‘Do you want to see our toad?’
‘Sit down, let’s have a look.’
Polina sat and picked at the sticky tape securing the lid of her box while Amy ladled hot jam into the flip-top bin. Some of it got ladled onto the floor.
Amy swatted the air. ‘Something for Janet to do,’ she said.
Janet wasn’t a real cleaner, according to Grace; she was on a gap year.
‘He’s going in the potion then we’re going to let him go,’ Polina said, but inside the box, the dead toad had gone grey and was crispy at the edges. She curled her toes tightly inside her shoes and then remembered what she was supposed to say. ‘Have you got any Marmite, please?’ Her chin quivered.
The bin smoked.
In the garden, Grace seethed; her arm was aching, she was too hot and her hair had come out of its band. She rested the spoon against the side of the bucket and slumped back onto her heels, casting a brief sideways look towards the kitchen. Picking up her notebook, she clicked her new biro from purple to green and scribbled over the name Caroline.
‘POLINA’ she wrote and then below that, neatly, ‘Suffer.’
This is an extract from The Negligents by Kate Smith, published in June 2018 by Valley Press.