Vanessa Lafaye’s stunning novel Summertime is set to be the biggest debut novel of the year.
It’s a beautiful and horrifying fictionalised account of one of the most devastating natural disasters in US history, the Labour Day Hurricane 1935.
We’ve got the gripping opening chapter for you to read right now . . .
The humid air felt like water in the lungs, like drowning. A feeble breeze stirred the washing on the line briefly but then the clothes fell back, exhausted by their exertion. Despite the heat, they refused to dry. The daily thunderstorms did nothing to reduce the temperature, just made the place steam. Like being cooked alive, Missy thought, like those big crabs in their tub of sea water, waiting for the pot tonight.
She bathed the baby outside in the basin in the shade of the banyan tree, both to cool and clean him. She was glad of his happy splashes which covered them both in soapy water. Earlier that morning, asleep in his new basket, his rounded cheeks had turned an alarming shade of red, like the over-ripe strawberries outside the kitchen door. You could have too much of a good thing, Missy knew, even strawberries. This summer’s crop had defeated even her formidable preserving skills and the fruit had been left to rot where it lay.
The peacocks called in the branches overhead. Little Nathan’s cheeks had returned to a healthy rose-tinted cream colour, so she could relax. With a grunt she levered herself off the ground and onto the wooden kitchen chair beside the basin, brushed the dead grass from her knees. No one else around, only Sam the spaniel, panting on the porch. Mrs Kincaid had gone to see Nettie the dressmaker, a rare absence from the house, and Mr Kincaid was at the country club, as usual. He had not slept at home more than a handful of nights in the past few months, always working late.
The mangroves smelled musky, like an animal, the dark brown water pitted with the footprints of flies.
Nathan started to whimper like he did when he was tired. She lifted him out of the water and patted him dry with the towel. He was already drowsy again so she lay him naked in the basket in the shade. With a sigh she spread her legs wide to allow the air to flow up her skirt and closed her eyes, waving a paper fan printed with, ‘I’m a fan of Washington, DC’. Mrs Kincaid had given it to her when they came back from their trip. Mrs Kincaid had insisted on going with her husband, to shop. Their argument had been heard clear across the street, according to Selma, who didn’t even have good ears.
Even so, Selma knew everyone’s business. She knew when Mrs Anderson’s boy Cyril lost a hand at the fish processing plant, even before Doc Williams had been called. She knew that Mrs Campbell’s baby would come out that exact shade of milky coffee even though Deputy Sherriff Dwayne Campbell had the freckles and red hair of his Scottish immigrant ancestors. Missy was slightly afraid of Selma, which gave their friendship an edge. Selma had helped when Missy first went to work for the Kincaids. She showed her where the best produce was to be found, the freshest fish. People told things to Selma, private things. She looked so unassuming with her wide smile and soft, downturned gaze. But Missy knew that those eyes were turned down to shield a fierce intelligence, and had witnessed Selma’s machinations. She seemed able to manipulate anyone in the town and leave no trace, had done so when it suited her. After Cynthia LeJeune criticised Selma’s peach cobbler, somehow the new sewage treatment plant got sited right upwind of the LeJeune house. It took a full-blooded fool to cross Selma.
Missy sighed, stroked Nathan’s cheek. His lips formed a perfect pink O, long lashes quivered, round tummy rose and fell. Sweat soaked her collar. When she leaned forward, the white uniform remained stuck to her back. She longed to strip off the clinging dress and run naked into the water, only a few yards away. And then she recalled: there was still some ice in the box in the kitchen – no, the ‘refrigerator’, as Mrs Kincaid said they were called now. She imagined pressing the ice to her neck, feeling the chilled blood race around her body until even her fingertips were cool. They would not mind, she thought, wouldn’t even notice if she took a small chunk. There was no movement at all in the air.
The afternoon’s thunderclouds were piled like cotton on the horizon, greyish white on top and crushed violet at the bottom.
I’ll only be a minute.
Inside the kitchen it was even stuffier than outside, although the windows were wide open and the ceiling fan turned on. Missy opened the refrigerator, took the pick to the block. A fist-size chunk dropped onto the worn wooden counter. She scooped it up, rubbed it on her throat, around the back of her neck, and felt instant relief. She rubbed it down her arms, up her legs. She opened the front of her uniform and rubbed the dwindling ice over her chest. Cool water trickled down to her stomach. Eyes closed, she returned it to her throat, determined to enjoy it down to the last drop, when she became aware of a sound outside.
Sam barked, once, twice, three times. This was not his greeting bark. It was the same sound he made that time when the wild-eyed man had turned up in the back yard, looking for food. Armed with a kitchen knife, Missy had yelled at him to get away, but it was Sam’s frenzied barking that had driven him off.
‘Nathan,’ she groaned, racing to the porch. At first she could not comprehend what her eyes reported. The Moses basket was moving slowly down the lawn towards the mangroves, with Sam bouncing hysterically from one side of it to the other. She could hear faint cries from the basket as Nathan woke. She stumbled down the porch steps in her hurry, and raced towards the retreating basket.
Then she saw him.
He was camouflaged by the mangrove’s shade at the water’s edge, almost the same the green of the grass.
He was big, bigger than any she had seen before. From his snout, clamped onto a corner of the basket, to the end of his dinosaur tail, the gator was probably fourteen feet long.
Slowly he planted each of his giant clawed feet, and determinedly dragged the basket towards the water.
‘Nathan! Oh God! Someone please help!’ she screamed and ran to within a few feet of the gator. But the large houses of the neighbours were empty, everyone at the beach preparing for the Fourth of July barbecue. ‘Sam, get him! Get him!’
The dog launched himself with a snarl at the gator but the reptile swung his body around with incredible speed. His enormous spiked tail, easily twice as long as the dog, surged through the air and slammed into Sam with such force that he was flung against the banyan tree. The dog slid down the trunk and lay unmoving on the ground.
‘Sam! No! Oh, Sam!’
The gator continued his steady progress towards the water.
Missy swallowed great gulping breaths, to hold down the panicky vomit rising in her gut. Everything seemed to happen very fast and very slow at the same time. She scanned the yard for anything which would serve as a weapon but there was not even a fallen branch, thanks to the diligence of Lionel the gardener. The gator had almost reached the water.
Missy knew very well what would happen next: he would take Nathan to the bottom of the swamp, and wedge him between the arching mangrove roots until he drowned. Then the gator would wait for a few days or a week before consuming his nicely tenderised meat.
And then she imagined the Kincaids’ faces when they learned the fate of their baby son, what they would do when they found out that a child in her care had been so horribly neglected. The gator’s yellow eyes regarded her with ancient, total indifference, as if she were a dragon fly hovering above the water. And then suddenly the panic drained from her like pus from a boil and she felt light and calm. She was not afraid. She knew what she had to do.
That precious baby boy will not be a snack for no giant lizard. She stood. Her thoughts cleared.
Despite the ferocious mouthful of teeth, she knew that most of the danger came from the back end. She began to circle nearer the head. She needed only spend a moment within the reach of that tail, which was as long as she was tall, to snatch Nathan from the basket. If she succeeded, then all would be well. If she failed, then she deserved to go to the bottom with him. The gator had reached the water line. There was no more time.
Movement on the porch. Suddenly Selma was running down the lawn towards her, loading the shotgun as she ran.
‘Outta the way, Missy!’ she cried, stomach and bosoms bouncing, stubby legs pounding. Missy had never seen Selma run, did not know that she could. ‘Outta the way!’
Missy threw herself to the ground, hands over her head. Selma stumbled to a halt, regained her balance, feet spread wide apart, stock of the gun buried between her arm and her bountiful chest.
‘Shoot it, Selma!’ yelled Missy, ‘for the love of Jesus, shoot it, NOW!’
There was an explosion. The peacocks shrieked and dropped clumsily to the ground and fled for the undergrowth. The air smelled burnt. And there was another smell, like cooked chicken. Missy looked up. Selma was on her back, legs spread, the gun beside her. The baby was screaming.
‘Nathan,’ Missy whispered, scrambled to her feet. ‘Nathan, I’m coming!’
The gator was where she had last seen it. Well, most of it was there, minus the head. The rest of the body was poised to enter the water.
‘Oh, Nathan!’ He was covered in gore. It was in his hair, his eyes, his ears. She scooped the flailing baby from the basket and inspected his limbs, his torso, his head, searching for injuries. But he was unhurt, it seemed, utterly whole. She clutched his writhing form to her, made him scream louder but she did not care. ‘It all right, honey, hush now, everything gonna be all right.’
‘The baby?’ asked Selma, propped on her elbows. ‘Is he—?’
‘He fine! He absolutely fine!’
‘Thank the Lord,’ said Selma, wincing as she got to her feet, ‘and Mr Remington.’ She rubbed her shoulder. ‘Helluva kick on him though.’
Missy said nothing, just cooed and rocked Nathan with her eyes closed. He still cried, but fretful, just-woken crying, and it was a joyous sound to hear. Her uniform was stiff with blood transferred from his little body. She looked up suddenly. The Kincaids would be home in a few hours to get ready for the barbecue, and when they learned what nearly happened, she would be fired. And that might not be the worst of it.
‘Missy,’ said Selma firmly, ‘come on, we got a lot to do.’
She felt cold under the hot sun. ‘Oh Selma, I’m done for.’
‘Listen to me, girl, this ain’t the biggest mess I’ve seen, by far.’ She shook Missy by the shoulder. ‘Come on, now pay attention'
First we get him cleaned up, and that basket too.’ She scrutinised it with a professional eye. ‘Yeah, this ain’t too bad.’
The bundle at the base of the tree stirred, emitted a soft cry. ‘Sam! He alive, oh Selma how bad is he?’ He had been an awful trial as a puppy, eating the legs right off the living room furniture and weeing in Mr Kincaid’s suitcase, but Sam had been Missy’s only companion most days.
‘Give me a minute,’ said Selma. She bent over the dog, stroked his ribs, felt his legs, his head. ‘Nothing broken,’ she pronounced, ‘Just knocked out. Be some bad bruises, I’ll give you something for that.’ She straightened. ‘Call him.’
‘Sam, here boy! Come here, Sammy!’ The dog’s eyes opened slowly, he raised his head, whimpered as he struggled onto his front legs, then straightened his back legs. ‘Good boy, Sammy, good boy!’ Missy could not look at the carcass by the water’s edge. ‘What about…what do we do with…that?’
‘What do you think?’ Selma was already striding towards it with great purpose. ‘We eat it. By the time my people is done here, won’t be nothin’ to see but a few peacock feathers.’