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The Year of the Ladybird
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The Year of the Ladybird

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Alternate Title: The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit
Author: Graham Joyce
Publisher: Doubleday, 2014
Gollancz, 2013
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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy / Horror
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Synopsis

David, a college student, takes a summer job at a run-down family resort in a dying English resort town. This is against the wishes of his family... because it was at this resort where David's biological father disappeared fifteen years earlier. But something undeniable has called David there.

A deeper otherworldliness lies beneath the surface of what we see. The characters have a suspicious edge to them... David is haunted by eerie visions of a mysterious man carrying a rope, walking hand-in-hand with a small child... and the resort is under siege by a plague of ladybugs. Something different is happening in this town.

When David gets embroiled in a fiercely torrid love triangle, the stakes turn more and more menacing. And through it all, David feels as though he is getting closer to the secrets of his own past.


Excerpt

1
LEND THEM NO MONEY, BUY THEM NO BEER

It was 1976 and the hottest summer in living memory. The reservoirs were cracked and dry; some of the towns were restricted to water from standpipes; crops were failing in the fields. England was a country innocent of all such extremity. I was nineteen and had just finished my first year at college.

Broke and with time on my hands, I needed a summer job. Looking for a way out from the plans my stepdad had made for me, I got an interview at a holiday resort on the east coast. Skegness, celebrated for that jolly fisherman in gum boots and a sou'wester gamely making headway against a sea- ward gale: It's so bracing!

But when I arrived in Skegness there wasn't a breath of wind, not even a sigh. The train rumbled in on hot iron tracks, decanted me and a few others onto the platform, and wheezed out again. The dirty Victorian red brick of the station seemed brittle, powdery. Flowers potted along the platform wilted and the grubby paintwork was cracked and peeled. I took a double-decker bus--mercifully open-topped--and asked the driver to drop me at the resort. He forgot and had to stop the bus and come up the stairs to tell me he'd passed it by. I had to backpack it a quarter of a mile, all in the shimmering heat. I followed the wire-mesh perimeter of the site with its neat rows of chalets and the seagull-like cries of the holidaymakers.

I thought I might get a job as a kitchen porter or as a white-jacketed waiter bowling soup plates at the holiday- makers. Any job at all, just so long as I didn't have to go home. The manager in charge of recruitment--a dapper figure in a blue blazer and sporting a tiny pencil mustache--didn't seem too interested. He was preoccupied with sprinkling bread crumbs on the corner of his desk. As I waited to be interviewed a sparrow fluttered in through the open window, picked up a crumb in its beak, and flew out again.

"That's amazing," I said.

No eye contact. "Tell me a bit about yourself."

I colored. "Well, I'm studying to be a teacher, so I'm good with children."

One of his eyebrows raised a notch. Encouraged, I added: "Actually I like children. And I can play a few chords. On the guitar."

The first bit was true but the thing about the guitar was a good stretch. I mean I knew the rough finger positions for the E, the A, and the C chords. Go and form a band, as they said at the time. The sparrow winged in again, picked up more bread crumbs, and fluttered out.

"What's your name again?"

"David Barwise."

"David," he said at last. "Find your way over to the laundry room and tell Dot to kit you out as a Greencoat. Then report to Pinky. He's our entertainments manager, you know. He has an office behind the theater. You know where the theater is, don't you?"

I'd stuck in my thumb and pulled out a plumb. It was early June and the temperature was already soaring into the high eighties. The kitchen was a sweat at any time. A Green- coat's job, on the other hand, had to be the prized option. I didn't know too much about it but I guessed you organized the Bathing Belle Parade beside the swimming pool; you got to walk around in the fresh air and fraternize with the holidaymakers.

To get to the laundry room I had to pass between a little white caravan and a beautifully kempt bowling green. Despite the drought regulations a sprinkler ticked away, keeping the grass green. Outside the caravan was a professionally painted billboard with a picture of an open palm bearing occult lines and numbers. The billboard advertised the services of one Madame Rosa, AS SEEN ON TV, palmist and fortune-teller to the stars. I didn't think I'd ever seen anyone called Madame Rosa on TV.

But the carnival stopped there, and the laundry room was a soulless breeze-block construction behind the offices where Dot, a stressed and rather grouchy woman with gray roots under her thinning bleached hair, toiled away in clouds of billowing steam. I interrupted her in the act of pressing shirts with an industrial iron. I smiled and let her know I needed kitting out as a Greencoat.

"You?" she said.

Maybe I blinked.

She seemed to be able to focus one eye on me while keeping the other eye on her work. "You could cut your hair and smarten yourself up a bit."

I bit my lip as she unearthed a set of whites for me-- trousers and shirts--plus a green sweater and a loud blazer candy-striped green, white, and red. She dumped them on the counter.

The sizes were all hopelessly wrong, and I protested.

"Yeh, you tell 'em," she said, turning back to her labors with the iron. The contraption made a huge hiss and she retreated into her cave behind a cloud of steam.

Clutching my new clothes, I was directed to the staff cha- lets. I say chalets, with its suggestion of delightful beachside cabins, but they were just a row of shaky plasterboard rabbit hutches with a communal shower and toilets. It was all pretty basic. Each "room" had just enough space for two narrow cots, with a gap of about eighteen inches between them, and a pair of miraculously slim wardrobes.

But I was happy to be by the seaside. It meant I didn't have to work with my stepdad. It was a job. It paid cash, folding.

One of the beds was unmade and a couple of shirts hung on wire hangers in its frail partner wardrobe. It seemed I had a roommate, but aside from a whiff of stale tobacco there were few clues to give me any hint about his character. I unpacked my few belongings and changed into the whites I'd been given.

The trousers were baggy at the waist and long in the leg, the shirts at least one collar size too big. I had a sewing kit in my bag, something I thought I'd never need, so I turned up the trouser cuffs to shorten them, and though I didn't make a great job of the sewing, the cuffs stayed up. It left me baggy in the crotch but I had a good belt to keep my trousers aloft. At least the candy-striped blazer was a rough fit. I gave myself the once-over in the mirror on the reverse of the door. I looked like a clown. I tried out a show-bizzy greeting smile in the mirror. I scared myself with it.

I'd been told to meet Pinky in the theater. I passed through an impressive front of house built to emulate a West End playhouse, with a plush foyer of red velvet fabrics and golden ropes. Billboards proclaimed a range of theater acts with gilt-framed professional black-and-white head shots. One giant picture showed a wild-eyed man called ABDUL- SHAZAM! in a tasseled red fez pointing his fingers at the cam- era in mesmeric fashion. His eyes followed me as I passed through giant doors leading into a hushed auditorium. I made my way down past the shadowed rows of red velvet seats to the front of the stage where I could see a small light illuminating an old-style Wurlitzer organ. The organist was studying some music scores while a second man in a blue-and-yellow- checked jacket looked on with a doleful expression.

The heyday of the British holiday resorts had slipped. The age of cheap flights had arrived and holidays in the guar- anteed sunshine of the Costa Brava had dented the industrial fortnight supremacy. It all felt time-locked. The doleful man glanced up at me as I proceeded down the aisle, and I felt he, too, was time-locked, maybe in the 1950s. His hair was pressed into a permanent wave that had crawled to the top of his forehead before taking a look over the edge and deciding to go no farther. He held an unlit cigar between his fingers and his eyebrows were perpetually arched, as if he were so often surprised by life that he had decided to save himself the energy of frequently raising and lowering them. "Let's have a look at you then," he said.

I stepped into the light shining from above the Wurlitzer.

He took a puff on his unlit cigar. "Christ," he said.

Pinky Pardew--real name Martin Pardew--was the entertainments manager. He governed the resort jollies: the children's entertainment; the daily timetable of events; the variety acts in the theater; the bingo, darts, and dominoes; the sing- along in the saloon; everything occupying the holidaymakers' time from nine thirty in the morning until two at night that didn't involve food and alcohol. It was a busy program of enforced bonhomie. He was also the boss to an assistant stage manager, the children's entertainer, and the team of six Greencoats--three boys and three girls. I'd arrived at the right moment to replace a Greencoat who'd quit. Good timing.

He stared at me glumly, cigar wedged deep between his fingers, eyebrows still arched high like windows in a locked village church.

"I think whoever had these before me," I said seriously, "must have been a bit overweight."

It got a snort from the man at the organ. He was of only a slightly more contemporary cut. He wore a black turtleneck and his hair was trimmed pudding-bowl style, like one of the Beatles when they were still shocked at their own fame.

"All right," Pinky said. "We'll see if we can improve on that lot. Tomorrow. Meanwhile you're just in time for lunch at the canteen. Then at two o'clock you'll find a bunch of lads waiting for you on the football field. Referee a game, will you?" He rummaged around in the pocket of his checked jacket and brought out a silver object on a string. "Here's your whistle. Try not to use it. Who are you?"

"I'm David," I said. I shot out a hand expecting him to shake it. It was a nervous gesture I instantly regretted.

Pinky looked at my hand as if he hadn't seen one before. To my relief he then conceded the handshake. But it was a brief gesture before he turned back to the man at the organ. The musician tapped out three quick rising notes on the key- board. Pa-pa-pah! I took that to be theater-speak for Thanks, right, g' bye.

The staff canteen thrummed and clattered. A few faces glanced up to take in the new boy but returned to their conversations without paying me much attention. I felt clumsy and knew I looked uncomfortable in my ill-fitting "uniform." I slid my tray along the rail and two ample but deadpan ladies from behind the counter loaded it with leek soup and a dollop of cod in white sauce.

All the tables were occupied with chattering staff and the only empty chairs would have me crash some intimate group. Except for one table where a couple in white cleaners' over- alls ate in sullen silence. The male hunched over a bowl of soup looked pretty rough, but two chairs stood empty at their table. I went for it.

"Mind if I sit down?"

They didn't even look up at me.

My cheeks flamed. The buzz of canteen conversation diminished. I got the strange sensation that everyone else eating there was suddenly interested in my progress. They all continued to talk but with less animation; they flickered glances in my direction but looked away just as quickly. The tension in the room had ratcheted up out of nowhere, but everyone was pretending nothing had changed.

The man bent on ignoring me had close-cropped tinsel-gray-and-black hair that reminded me of the alpha-male silverback gorilla; and though he was still hunched over his soup bowl, he had frozen. His spoon, having ladled, was arrested mid-path between dish and lip. I switched my gaze to his partner, a much younger woman maybe in her late twenties. The palm of one delicate hand flew to her face, but then she too was immobilized. Her brown eyes were opened in alarm, though her gaze was tracked not on me but on her partner.

I looked back at the man. "I didn't want to crowd you. There aren't any other seats."

At last, at long last, he lifted his bony head and gazed up at me. His complexion was ruddy and weathered, all broken surface capillaries. The whites of his cold eyes were stained with spots of yellow. He blinked in frigid assessment. Finally he offered the briefest of nods, which I took as permission to sit down. I unloaded my soup and fish and leaned my empty tray precariously against the leg of my chair.

The man's wife--I took the wide gold band on her finger to mean that they were married--relaxed a little but not completely. She glanced at me and then back at her husband. Meanwhile he put his head down and continued to eat, reaching all the way round to the far side of his dish, digging back into his soup before raising his spoon to his mouth. His sleeves were rolled. Naval tattoos, faded and discolored on the pale skin beneath the dark hairs of his arms, flexed slightly as he ate. Between the lower finger knuckles of his fists were artlessly tattooed the words LOVE and HATE in washed-out blue ink.

I started in on my leek soup.

"First day?" I heard him say, though he appeared to growl right into his dish. His voice was a miraculous low throaty rasp. Southern.

His wife looked at me and nodded almost imperceptibly, encouraging me to respond.

"Yes," I said brightly. "Trying to work out where every- thing is. Get the hang of things. You know? Got lost three times already." I laughed. I was a bag of nerves and I knew it and he knew it. I colored again and hated myself for it.

He lifted his head at last and looked from side to side as if an enemy might be listening. It was like we were in prison. Almost without moving his lips he croaked, "Keep your head down. Be all right."

His wife was looking at me now. Her beautiful brown eyes blazed at me. But behind them, her expression seemed to be saying something else.

He pushed his empty soup bowl aside and sucked on his teeth before reaching for his plate of fish. His wife quickly buttered a slice of bread and set it before him. She had long elegant fingers. Her extreme delicacy and prettiness were a shocking contrast to the coarseness of her husband. He took the buttered bread and between strong fingertips colored like acorns with nicotine, he folded and squeezed it. After swallowing a mouthful of fish he leaned back in his chair and said, "Don't give 'em nothing."

I had no idea who he was talking about.

He shot a glance through the window and spoke out of the side of his mouth. "Don't lend 'em any money. Don't buy 'em a beer."

I was about to say something but his wife flared her eyes at me again. Very wide. She was warning me not to interrupt him.

"You can lend 'em a cigarette. A cigarette is all right. One cigarette. Not two. One cigarette is all right." Then he looked back at me again. "Don't tell 'em nothing they don't need to know. Nothing. Be all right."

Then he bent his head over his cod in white sauce and ate the rest of his dinner. The conversation was over. His wife looked up at me briefly and this time her eyes said There you are, then.

Football I could do. When I got down to the bone-hard, dusty soccer pitch there were about twenty enthusiastic lads waiting to be organized, so I divided them into teams and let them have at it. I lavished them with uncritical praise, and if they fell over I picked them up. If they got roughed up, I pulled them to their feet and told them what a great thing it was they were so hardy and that good footballers needed to be tough.

When it was time to finish I noticed Pinky and another tall, slightly stooped man watching, both with folded arms, from the side of the pitch. I gave a blast on the whistle to end the game, collected the ball, and walked over to them. Pinky introduced the man to me as Tony. I recognized him as the fez-wearing figure on the billboard in the foyer of the theater. Abdul-Shazam. Though in real life he looked no more Arabic than do I.

Tony--or Abdul-Shazam--gave me a wide professional smile and pumped my hand. "You'll do me, son. Pick 'em up, dust 'em down. Up you get and carry on. Like that. Like it. You, son, are now officially on the team. Come on. Coffee time."

Pinky excused himself and Tony whisked me to the coffee bar. There he charmed a couple of free frothy espressos out of the girl behind the counter. He introduced me to her and said something that made my face color. When we sat down he proceeded to brief me.

"Everything, son, you do everything. It's all in the pro- gram. You get Saturday off every week, changeover day. Meet in the theater each morning at nine thirty sharp. Check in, cover the bases. Can you sing? Dance? Tell a funny story? Just kidding, son, just kidding. You check the bingo tickets, get everyone in the theater, give the kids a stick of rock candy every five minutes. Been to college, haven't you? You can write, can't you? Write down the names of the winners of the Glamorous Grandmother comp and all that. A monkey could do it, no offense. If you're chasing skirt, make sure you share yourself round the ugly ones because it's only fair. Smile all the way until October. That's all you have to do. A monkey could do it."

"What happened to the last monkey?"

"What?"

"The one I replaced."

Tony looked up and waved wildly at a family passing by our table. His face was like soft leather and it fell easily into a wreath of smiles, like it knew the lines into which it should flow. His skin was super-smoothed by remnants of stage makeup. "Howdy, kids!"

"Shazam, Shazam!" the entire family shouted back at him. He looked pleased.

When they'd gone I reminded him of my question. "Look, don't worry about a thing." I don't know why he said that because I wasn't worried. "Any problems see me, except when there's a problem, see someone else." Then he burst into song, crooner style, throwing his arms wide and turning to the holidaymakers seated at other tables. "The answer, my friend-a, is a-blowing in the wind-a, the answer is a-blowing in the wind." He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and blew his nose very loudly. Everyone laughed and I did, too, for reasons I didn't quite understand.

He drained his cup and stood up. "You're back on duty in one hour. Bingo in the main hall. After that, theater, front of house."

Then he was gone.

Copyright © 2013 by Graham Joyce


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The Year of the Ladybird: aka The Ghost in t...

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